Colonel Snape’s Veritaserum: Teaching Jane Austen in a Harry Potter World

Colonel Snape’s Veritaserum: Teaching Jane Austen in a Harry Potter World

Donna S. Parsons
University of Iowa

1.         Jane Austen is one of those rare authors whose novels and life story transcends time and a multitude of boundaries. As a clergyman’s daughter, her literary prowess was influenced by the dynamics of family and village life. Because she published her novels anonymously, only her family and a few friends were aware of her accomplishments when she died in 1817. Yet, from the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870 to the release of the film Becoming Jane in 2007, interest in Jane Austen’s life and novels have grown unabatedly. As I was planning my fall 2011 honors seminar titled “Jane and the Austenites,” I was unsure how familiar my students would be with Austen’s life and work. Besides undertaking a close reading of the novels for the insights they provided on marriage, class, finance, genteel society and Regency culture, my goal was to examine the development of Austen’s popularity in American and British culture and how her life and work had been bifurcated between academic scholarship and popular culture. Because this generation of students has such a strong visual orientation, a major aspect of the seminar was to analyze the ways in which cinematic adaptations of Austen’s novels and life have driven her canonical and celebrity status.

2.         While many of my students had seen Becoming Jane and the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice (2005), they were unfamiliar with the contributions Colin Firth had made to our understanding of Mr. Darcy or with the fact that Emma Thompson had written the screenplay for the Ang Lee production of Sense and Sensibility (1995). More shocking than the realization that several students had never read a single page of Austen’s novels was their reaction to seeing Colonel Brandon’s appearance in the cinematic version of Sense and Sensibility. When we first meet the Colonel, it is his undivided attention to Marianne’s performance, where she sings and accompanies herself at the pianoforte, that denotes him as a gentleman and a man of deep thought. Yet, my students saw nothing of Brandon’s intellect or penetrating reflection. They squealed “Professor Snape!” in delight as though they had been re-introduced to a beloved mentor from their childhood. At that moment, Austen’s novel had entered the Harry Potter paradigm, and we had to find a way to link the two characters’ personal histories and motives as a means to draw my students’ attention back to Colonel Brandon and Sense and Sensibility. This essay will highlight the various ways in which we were able to connect these two disparate characters. It will show how utilizing students’ knowledge of Professor Snape and the Harry Potter series gave them easier access to understanding Colonel Brandon’s interactions with other characters, as well as his reactions to various events, and provided a gateway for close readings of Jane Austen’s novels.

3.         Students respond so enthusiastically to both Austen and J.K. Rowling’s novels for a variety of reasons. On a basic level, when they start reading they get lost in the story. They escape into another world which allows them to momentarily forget their problems or concerns. Students find themselves on the front line of the action with the knowledge that no harm will come their way. The circumstances Austen and Rowling’s characters encounter are similar in several ways to what many students today experience, as they too have well-meaning parents whose agendas for their careers may differ from their own interests. Their family dynamics are also comparable: their parents may have very contrasting personalities, they may be raised by a single parent, or their siblings may not share their altruistic goals. They mingle with the opposite sex at social events where casual conversation may occur over dessert, or they might listen to live music together. The threat of conflict—whether it be war in a foreign country or acts of terrorism at home—appears in both Austen and Rowling’s novels and in their own lives. Several students have noted that reading how fictional characters responded to a personal irritation such as a gossiping mother, immature siblings, or childhood bullies influenced their own reactions to similar situations.

4.         On an intensely personal level, students are attracted to Austen and Rowling’s novels because they identify with specific characters. My female students saw themselves in Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot. Many wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet, and not just because she married Fitzwilliam Darcy. For them, Elizabeth was snarky. They acknowledged her judgment errors, but were inspired by her determination to stand her ground as she turned down marriage proposals by Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy, or when she defended her integrity and principles to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. My male students tended to identify with Mr. Darcy. They admired how well he ran his estate, his good standing in Derbyshire, and his ability to see through scheming women. While students were inclined to view Mr. Darcy as the definition of a gentleman, they were also mesmerized by his and Elizabeth’s banter. Many students openly acknowledged that these lively exchanges were what they wanted in their own personal relationships.

5.        My students had grown up reading the Harry Potter series, and for them the books are cherished friends to whom they continually return. As we discussed their attachment to the series, many revealed how they identified with a particular character that then helped them deal with whatever issues they faced as they were maturing. It might be Harry Potter, whose miserable childhood at the Dursley’s taught him how to stand up to bullies, read people’s motives, and empathize with others who were facing difficult situations; Luna Lovegood, who always appeared to be comfortable in her own skin and reveled in genuine friendships; or Hermione Granger, who knew that her critical thinking skills were her greatest asset. After all, Viktor Krum, the seeker for the Bulgarian National Quidditch team, had a legion of female Hogwarts students following his every move during his participation in the Triwizard Tournament, yet he chose to spend his free time in the Hogwarts library so he could be near her.

6.        I understood their affinity for Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Luna, but Snape—head of Slytherin, a reformed Death Eater, and a bitter man who rarely uttered a positive word? What did he offer my students? How did his character provide consolation in times of need? What did he teach my students about themselves and their world? I was perplexed at how Severus Snape with his “greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin” (Sorcerer’s Stone 126) was synonymous with Colonel Brandon, who although being “on the wrong side of five and thirty” had an “appearance….[that] was not unpleasing” (Sense & Sensibility 27). Colonel Brandon was unassuming and had a tendency to blend into the environment. Although well-liked and respected by all who befriended him, he is defined by his gravity, reserve and, to Marianne Dashwood’s disapproval, a liking of “flannel waistcoats” (Sense & Sensibility 30). How could my students possibly see Professor Snape in him? Everything about Snape commands attention, whether it is his ability to hold his students’ attention in the palm of his hand by speaking “in barely more than a whisper,” (Sorcerer’s Stone 136), possessing eyes that “were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels” (Sorcerer’s Stone 136), or by alternating a “very cold voice” (Chamber of Secrets 78) with one that “snapped” (Chamber of Secrets 79), “roared” (Chamber of Secrets 187), and even “snarled” (Prisoner of Azkaban 171). Severus is not a man to cross even in the best of times. But when we probed deeper at these two gentlemen’s countenances, we found much hidden beneath their exteriors.

7.        Alan Rickman has been celebrated for his masterful depiction of Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. He has also garnered critical attention in the Austen scholarship for his portrayal of Colonel Brandon in the Ang Lee production of Sense and Sensibility. In this particular role Rickman was noted for “convey[ing] particularly well the saturnine melancholy of a man who has been disappointed in love but takes a chance on loving again” (Sue Parrill 37). While Penny Gay’s critique of the film focuses on the ways in which Rickman’s costumes transform Colonel Brandon “into the image of the romantic Byronic hero” and as an ex-military man into something “splendidly virile in his red-coated colonel’s dress uniform” (Gay 98), she also concedes that it was Alan Rickman “who br[ought] to the role a brooding sexual presence” (106). Cheryl L. Nixon is more circumspect when she contrasts the Colonel Brandon that we find in Austen’s novel to the one in the Lee production and claims that “the film rema[de] Brandon into a standard-bearer of true emotion” (39) Since one of the goals of the seminar was to undertake a close reading of Austen’s novels, I wanted my students to focus on her command of language and the precision of her word choice. In looking for similarities between Colonel Brandon and Professor Snape, I expected them to rely on the respective narratives and provide textual evidence for their ideas.

8.        We began our study of Snape and Brandon by analyzing the factors that make Professor Snape’s character the most complex in the series, and the ways in which his conflicted emotions drive the narrative at key moments. We talked about his never-ending love for his childhood friend Lily Potter, how he was unable to protect her from Lord Voldemort, and the grief he suffered at her death. I challenged my students to find similar constructions in Colonel Brandon. I asked them to consider how the Colonel’s past is similar to Snape’s, and the ways in which Marianne Dashwood’s life and actions are similar to that of Harry Potter. My goal was to get them to see that the Colonel is also a man of complexity–to make them question what was hidden behind his mask. My students needed to probe beyond his veil of silence and gravity to understand why he is so well-liked and respected by those who call him friend and what he has to offer Marianne as a life partner.

9.        It is the complexity of the two characters—their concern for the well-being of others, the passion that hides behind their impenetrable masks, and overall their capacity to love—that connects them. Both epitomize the definition of gentlemen in their respective worlds, and both suffered a tragic loss that is the defining moment in their lives. Snape and Brandon are private men who keep their personal feelings to themselves. They teach us to dive deep beneath the surface before we pass judgment on their motives and integrity. As Harry continues to doubt Snape’s allegiance to the Order of the Phoenix during the second war with Voldemort, Remus Lupin reminds him that “Dumbledore trusts Severus, and that ought to be good enough for all of us” (Half-Blood Prince 332). In the Order’s discussion of Snape’s involvement in Dumbledore’s death and their disbelief that he could be capable of such a heinous act, Professor McGonagall reveals that “[Dumbledore] always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape…” (Half-Blood Prince 616). That reason—the protection of Harry Potter as he grows from infant to adult—was not revealed outside the Order until Harry’s final duel with Voldemort. I asked students where they found similar instances of daring and bravery in Colonel Brandon.

10.         Students discussed Colonel Brandon’s reaction to Marianne Dashwood’s musical performance where “[h]e paid her only the compliment of attention” (Sense and Sensibility 27) and which set his response against the over-the-top ones by Sir John and Lady Middleton. His silence was their first clue that there is more to Brandon that what meets the eye. Their second clue came during Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne’s subsequent discussion of the Colonel. Although Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor are impressed by him, Marianne complains “[b]ut he talked of flannel waistcoats…and with me a flannel waistcoat is invariably connected with aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble” (Sense and Sensibility 30). Eileen Sutherland reminds us that when Marianne complains about the waistcoat she is actually revealing “her naiveté and ignorance of the world” (58). Growing up in a sheltered environment, she does not realize that she “should have connected it with danger, endurance, and courage…” (Sutherland 58). The disconnect between the clothing accessory and what it actually symbolizes leads to further discussion on Colonel Brandon and his time in the East Indies. Elinor tells Marianne and Willoughby that the Colonel “has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad; has read, and has a thinking mind” (Sense and Sensibility 39). Yet, Marianne only recalls his complaints that “the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome” (Sense and Sensibility 39). Marianne (and Willoughby) displays no understanding of the British government’s concern over a “revival of French power” (Roberts 96) or the possibly of a French invasion on English soil. Because the Colonel does not talk in detail about his time abroad, we do not know what he experienced. Did he perform heroically on the battlefield? Did he watch one of his close friends die? Did his experiences abroad lead to his promotion to Colonel? Tim Fulford persuasively argues that Austen was more focused on “the contexts of those battles and [parliamentary] bills, away from the public arena, in the country as a whole” (163). We needed to stop and consider how the Napoleonic wars and the English militia’s foreign postings affected village life and those who had valiantly served their country. While Willoughby has youth and a certain amount of swagger on his side, Brandon is the more formidable man when we consider his credentials and experiences. Marianne has to experience her own close encounter with death before she can see past Willoughby’s façade.

11.         Colonel Brandon’s military experiences then led to a comparison of his and Professor Snape’s personal integrity. Students recalled that Snape had never been popular when he was a student at Hogwarts. He loathed James Potter and his friends Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. Even though Potter and Black taunted and publicly humiliated him, Snape did not turn his back on Lupin when he truly needed his help. Snape successfully concocts the Wolfsbane potion for Remus Lupin every month so that when the full moon causes his transformation into a werewolf, he can retain his mental faculties and position as teacher of the Defense Against the Dark Arts course—a position that Snape openly coveted. As for Colonel Brandon, we considered his sensitivity to others in embarrassing or distressing situations. For instance, when Mrs. Jennings attempts to discover the identity of the young man who has captured Elinor’s heart, the Colonel follows Lady Middleton’s lead in the discussion on the weather by adding commentary on the rain and thereby shutting down the enquiry. When he hears that Edward Ferrars has been disinherited by his mother because of his engagement to Lucy Steele, Brandon attempts to rectify Edward’s financial destitution by offering him the modest living at Delaford. Due to the delicacy of the situation and his unease at disclosing the reasons why he wants to make this offer, he asks that Elinor approach Edward for him. The Colonel tells her that “[t]he cruelty…of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other, is terrible—Mrs. Ferrars does not know what she may be doing—what she may drive her son to” (Sense and Sensibility 213). The Colonel does not want to see another good man endure pain and misery just because his vocational endeavors or romantic liaisons do not meet a parent’s expectations or financial needs. Furthermore, Colonel Brandon watches Marianne and Willoughby’s interactions and believes, as do others, that they are secretly engaged. After Willoughby coldly ends their friendship, and while Colonel Brandon never believes there is a sliver of hope of Marianne looking favorably toward him, he visits the Miss Dashwoods regularly while they are in London. He tries to ascertain Marianne’s mental and emotional states either by watching her demeanor or talking with Elinor. The Colonel shows concern for Marianne’s well-being even when he has nothing to gain.

12.        I want to go back for a moment to my earlier questions regarding my students’ affinity for Professor Snape. What he offered or taught them about themselves and their world involved the ability to love, the luck of finding one’s soul mate as a young adult, and the need to honor and respect that love when tragedy strikes. Only when it is absolutely necessary do he and Colonel Brandon reveal the reason for their silence, gravity, and disconnect. Indeed, the over-arching theme that connects Colonel Brandon to Professor Snape is the love and companionship the two men found with Eliza and Lily Evans during their childhoods. These two girls were more than just their best friends. They were the loves of their lives. Different circumstances led both to lose their loves at an early age. At 17, Eliza entered a loveless marriage with Colonel Brandon’s older brother as a means to secure financially his father’s estate. Severus Snape’s loss of Lily Evans was much more gradual. At age 11, both entered Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although the sorting hat placed them in rival houses, Lily tried to maintain her friendship with Severus. This was made more difficult by his friendships with soon-to-be Death Eaters and his fascination with the Dark Arts. Even though Lily attempted to come to Snape’s aid while he was being taunted by James Potter, his calling her a “Mudblood” was the catalyst for her terminating the friendship (Deathly Hallows 675). Snape tried to apologize later, but Lily told him in no uncertain terms that “[y]ou’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine” (Deathly Hallows 676). Snape never stops loving Lily.

13.        After Lily Potter’s death, it was Albus Dumbledore who showed Snape the “way forward” (Deathly Hallows 678). Lily’s one-year-old son, Harry, was the only known wizard to have survived the killing curse. Dumbledore realized that when Voldemort returned to power, Harry’s life would be in danger. To ensure that Lily had not died in vain, he wanted Snape’s help in protecting the child. He secured Snape’s alliance after revealing that Harry “has her eyes, precisely her eyes” (Deathly Hallows 678). Every time Snape looks Harry in the eye he sees Lily. To conceal his concern for Harry’s well-being, he uses his loathing of James Potter to create the veneer of contempt and the taunts that follow Harry’s every move at Hogwarts. As Snape is dying from the wounds inflicted by Nagini, Voldemort’s snake, memories “gushed from his mouth and his ears and his eyes…” (Deathly Hallows 657). Snape gives Harry 18 different memories that involve his mother and which reveal his close friendship with her, his attempts to protect her and Harry, his loyalty to Dumbledore, and the role he played as a double agent in trying to secure Harry’s safety and the destruction of the Dark Lord. It is only in the face of death that Harry discovered the real man and uncovered his acts of bravery.

14.         When we turned our attention to Sense and Sensibility, we examined the scene between Elinor and Brandon at Mrs. Jennings’s home in London. When Marianne is suffering from Willoughby’s rejection, Colonel Brandon tries to ease her pain by revealing to Elinor his knowledge of Willoughby’s relationships with other women. It is at this point we learn about the Eliza whom he loved and lost, his actions in ensuring that she did not die alone or in squalor, her daughter Eliza Williams to whom he acts as a dutiful guardian, and how this young woman’s downfall came at the hands of Willoughby. Colonel Brandon tells Elinor he reveals this information in hopes of providing “lasting conviction to your sister’s mind” (152). Yet, Colonel Brandon also concedes that he sees “a very strong resemblance between [Eliza and Marianne], as well in mind and person. The same warmth of heart, the same eagerness of fancy and spirits” (153). He lays bare the intense pain he and his guardian have suffered as a means to contextualize Willoughby’s perfidy and Marianne’s escape. When my students started questioning whether the Colonel saw Marianne as Marianne or as a substitute Eliza, I knew we were discussing Austen’s characters based on their own identity and unique qualities rather than a cinematic casting of actors, and that Professor Snape was now allowed to remain off-stage.

15.         Due to my Jane Austen students’ enthusiasm for the Harry Potter series, I created a new honors seminar on “Harry Potter and the Quest for Enlightenment” which debuted in spring 2012. Now that I possess deeper knowledge of the Harry Potter series, I know how I could have incorporated my Austen students’ enthusiasm for Harry Potter better into Jane Austen’s novels.

16.        When we read Austen and Rowling’s texts, we find many instances where characters are obsessed with their status in their community. In fearing that her nephew has proposed to a woman “of no importance in the world” (Pride and Prejudice 271) Lady Catherine de Bourgh haughtily informs Elizabeth Bennet of the irrevocable harm her marriage to Mr. Darcy will bring him and his family. She is so focused on their differing stations in life that she does not consider the emotional maturation or fortitude that Elizabeth possesses which will allow her to act as Mr. Darcy’s partner and not as his trophy wife. On his initial train ride to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Draco Malfoy tells Harry Potter that “[y]ou’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort” (Sorcerer’s Stone 108). Harry had just met Ron Weasley, who comes from a close-knit, pure-blood wizarding family and who does not judge others by their blood status. If we had focused our discussions more closely on status and class, we could have critiqued how misguided ideals adversely affect specific characters’ actions and the community as a whole. We could have related the Black family’s ownership of Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy (Order of the Phoenix 116) to Sir Walter’s constant perusal of “the Baronetage” (Persuasion 9). What does their preoccupation reveal about their own fears regarding an evolving society? Finally, I would have asked my students to analyze women’s lives in Austen and Rowling’s novels. What opportunities do Austen’s heroines have to pursue their interests? How does this compare to Amelia Bones, who is the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; Poppy Pomfrey, who is the Hogwarts school nurse; or Nymphadora Tonks, who is an Auror? How do Austen’s female characters make valuable contributions to their families and their communities? What do both authors have to say about the importance of motherhood? We could have judged Mrs. Dashwood’s attempts to advance Elinor and Edward’s courtship and her growing regard for Colonel Brandon to Molly Weasley’s affections for her seven children and her ability to kill Bellatrix Lestrange during the Battle of Hogwarts after a deadly curse nearly missed striking her only daughter. In Austen and Rowling’s novels we find several demonstrations of the extreme lengths mothers will go to protect the opportunities and lives of their children. We could have charted these actions throughout the Harry Potter series and in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

17.         Utilizing Professor Snape as the lens through which to view Colonel Brandon allowed my students to build a foundation upon which to critique characters motives and interactions with their peers more succinctly. As they became more familiar with Austen’s novels, they were able to offer detailed analyses of specific scenes and explain how what was left unsaid may have been more revealing than what was divulged. Through their perusal of first-edition Austen novels in our university library’s special collections department, several students discussed the thrill of holding volume one and reading the opening paragraphs as Austen’s readers had once done. They were momentarily transported back into the eighteenth century. Austen’s readers were as excited to read her novels as my students were to read the latest installment in the Harry Potter series. As teachers we can channel this excitement and emphasize the ways in which popular culture holds clues to the canon of the future. In 1811, who would have thought that the anonymous author of Sense and Sensibility would develop such a strong, devout following of fans? In making connections between Austen’s characters, settings, and language to that of J.K. Rowling's, we help students understand why novels of earlier centuries can retain their appeal in a post-modern world.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. ed. James Kinsley. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

--- Persuasion. ed. James Kinsley. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Fulford, Tim. “Sighing for a Soldier: Jane Austen and the Military Pride and Prejudice.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. 57.2 (2002), 153­78. Print.

Gay, Penny. “Sense and Sensibility in a Postfeminist World: Sisterhood is Still Powerful.” Jane Austen on Screen. Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 90­110. Print.

Nixon, Cheryl L. “Balancing the Courtship Hero: Masculine Emotional Display in Film Adaptations of Austen’s Novels.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 22­43. Print.

Parrill, Sue. Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 2002. Print.

Ray, Joan Klingel. “Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.” The Explicator 60:1 (2001), 15­19. Print.

Roberts, Warren. Jane Austen and the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Print.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997. Print.

--- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.

--- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.

---Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003. Print.

--- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005. Print.

--- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007. Print.

Sutherland, Eileen. “That Infamous Flannel Waistcoat.” Persuasions 18 (1996), 58. Web. <>