Austen Power

"They’re like Trekkies who shop at Talbots. I HATE THEM. I HATE THEM. I HATE THEM ALL. ... these sack of shit Jane Austen freaks had monopolized the theatre complex to see what must be the eighth or ninth Pride and Prejudice remake in my lifetime. I don’t get it.”

That was the gist of a recent posting on discussion forum, entitled “Jane Austen Sucks.”

It’s not an easy life, at all, admitting to being a “Janeite,” as Rudyard Kipling would say. As one of them, I am herded together with an illusive cabal of old ladies whose books rest near scented candles on nightstands, rather than the other fans I actually know, who spend five hours on Sunday watching the BBC version of the P&P miniseries because it’s their hangover cure.

Upon entering Austen’s world, it can be difficult to leave, and this means trouble in the real world. After spending a weekend rereading Pride and Prejudice — her 1813 novel, regarded as her most popular work — I unintentionally finish sentences with the verbal ripostes that make her stories such a pleasure. I cited her to a friend just the other day, because it seemed appropriate: “You must get great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own,” I said. This led to a sarcastic suggestion to read grittier stuff like Denis Johnson.

I’m sure you have heard that the current remake of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley, is now showing in theaters nationwide. It is getting rave reviews, even from trustworthy critics writing for respectable sources like and Slate. The film, let me be the first to tell you, is to be abhorred. Nevertheless, it has unleashed a new wave of Austen mania and, of course, stories about Austen mania. Last Sunday’s New York Times covered Austen not in the arts or lifestyle sections, but in the Week in Review.

The renewed interest in Austen began 10 years ago. In the space of a year the BBC released Pride and Prejudice as a miniseries, while Hollywood released versions of Emma, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. They were followed by a feature-length film version of Mansfield Park in 1999, and now this remake of Pride and Prejudice.

Her novels have always sold surprisingly well — but last week the $4.95 Bantam Classic edition of Pride and Prejudice ranked in the top 300 in Amazon book sales, which is pretty damn high, considering that neither Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter nor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cracked the 5,000 mark. Not so shabby, Jane.

It’s impressive that the self-educated Austen, who grew up in a small country village in England and began writing at age 15, has published stories that are taught in university seminars, but the true sign of timelessness is that her work lends itself easily to such modern movie makeovers as 1995’s Clueless, based on her 1815 novel Emma, as well as 2001’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, based (like the book before it) on Pride and Prejudice. Last year, Austen even went Bollywood in Bride and Prejudice.

Austen’s novels are read with amusement by preteens and professors, Danielle Steel-style romantics and literary realists. But because it has mass appeal —not usually the case for the books we like to call “classics” — there’s a stereotype that her stories are fluff. Otherwise intelligent people assume Austen is a cliché. I’m convinced that those who say her work sucks have either never actually read it, or have misread it. Just take the author of the Hotfudgedetroit posting, who openly admits, after ranting for a while: “I’ve never read any Jane Austen novels, perhaps they are lovely ...”

In my experience, I’ve found Austen naysayers are likely to be from two very different camps: either they’re the snobs who rebel against any art form with broad appeal — they’ll likely tell you a Monet is boring simply because it’s pretty — or they’re men who are afraid of the chick lit factor.

But they are the losers. Her writing is pure artistry. Virginia Woolf was an ardent admirer who wrote about Austen often. Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, seemed to find an excuse to write about Austen every year — and her beat was politics. Naysayers, you share your good opinion with cranky Andy Rooney. “I have never read anything Austen wrote,” he says. “They seemed to be the Bobbsey twins for grown-ups.”

Yes, Austen’s world is incredibly narrow, but so are classic Western films in their own ways. She may have followed the lives of the middle and upper-middle class in country villages near Bath, where she grew up, but her stories speak volumes about human nature. As a recent New York Times article noted, literary Darwinists, critics who dissect and analyze stories in search of telltale signs of human behavior, deem her canon their “fruit fly.” Austen’s view of her small world is simple yet informed. In it, you can know the truth of a man’s disposition by one wisecrack or write a paper on her early 19th century era after reading one paragraph. Virginia Woolf marveled at those “little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes’ chatter, all that we need to know.”

Take, for instance, this dialogue condensed from a scene in Pride and Prejudice, a story about Lizzy Bennet, a girl of modest means with an independent spirit who resists and eventually falls for the high-society Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. She spends a lot of time despising Darcy because she overhears him insult her and finds him full of conceit. Lizzy is oblivious, though, to the way his opinion of her has shifted over time as he observes her humor and intelligence.

In an attempt to explain his reserved nature, he says: “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

Lizzy responds, while playing the piano: “My fingers do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”

Here are two people appealing to each other through a meeting of the minds rather than the heart. But, on top of that, Austen provides commentary about superficiality in society, and presents a woman pushing the boundaries of what could be considered appropriate conversation when speaking to a gentleman of higher rank, thereby leveling the playing field between classes.

Then there’s her beautiful brand of romance. Years before women young and old swooned over Sex and the City’s slick-suited Mr. Big, the barometer for gauging a man’s greatness was (and still is) the taciturn, the estimable Mr. Darcy. When it comes to matters of the heart, Austen’s notion of love is based on self-recognition, an understanding of our own flaws rather than the perfection of others. It’s realistic, which is what gives it such a contemporary feel. Her heroines can be stubborn and resist change, making the transformation really relatable, not to mention believable.

She’ll spend at least two-thirds of a story showcasing feisty females, enviable in their dealings with others, but then subtly reveal their faults. More than halfway through Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet comes to realize that her motivation for disliking Mr. Darcy is her own vanity:

“I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one’s genius, such an opening for wit, to have a dislike of that kind.” She realizes that it is not Mr. Darcy who changed, but her understanding of him: “When I said that he improved upon acquaintance, I did not mean that either his mind or his manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.”

Austen was extremely skeptical of romanticism in the arts; she relished the farce that is reality, and the inherent irony in mundane truths. Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 when Austen was 23, ridicules the Gothic-style swooners that fill the novels of her contemporaries. Emma and Sense and Sensibility are about women who get into trouble when they confuse life and art.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that a bunch of second-rate contemporary authors have written prequels and sequels to her novels; Austen’s readers are always thirsty for more, and are often a little indiscriminate. But in the words of writer Deborah Kaplan, some of these books “Harlequinize” the Austen canon, encouraging the misconception that her readers are seeking escapism. There’s so little smooching that National Public Radio put on an April Fools’ Day gag in 2001 about the lost pages of sex scenes in Jane Austen novels, which were published in a book titled Pride and Promiscuity by Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton.

The dozens of film adaptations of Austen’s books may be a sign of her enduring appeal, but the bad ones have contributed to the stereotypes and misconceptions that surround her.

If anything, they’re useful learning tools in recognizing how faulty cinema is in conveying literary magic. The language is stripped away, the plots are chewed up and digested. In Austen, author Karen Joy Fowler says: “The most interesting bits, the bits that most powerfully undercut the easy-reading, are removed.”

These celluloid visions obliterate Austen because the real value of her work is in such details as the intricacy of simultaneous plot lines working in tandem; if you cut one, nothing makes sense. This is why the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, originally broadcast across England as a miniseries in 1995, was such a wild success — so said millions of viewers and pretty much all press. It wasn’t word for word, but it accurately conveyed the story.

There are 10 versions and adaptations of the film, including the 1940 film starring Greer Garson and Sir Lawrence Olivier. But the five-hour BBC miniseries notoriously “stopped the nation” — journalists followed the story in their columns and shopkeepers closed up early to run home and watch what would happen next. Director Simon Langton says that in his remake, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Carl Davis’ music fills in the narrative when Austen’s language or action must be condensed. And the drama unfolds just as it does in any of her novels; this Pride and Prejudice opens at a formidable pace, with two men galloping into action.

The most recent remake, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and British actor Matthew Macfadyen, is the first feature-length film of Pride and Prejudice in several decades.

For starters, the casting is all wrong. Keira Knightley is a sweet enough actress, but she makes my skin crawl for the very reason so many guys like her — the snake of tongue that slithers through her teeth when she smiles. In this case, she is indeed young enough to play the 20-year-old Lizzy Bennet, but she is also supposed to be a moderately attractive woman who grows more beautiful once her intelligence and wit shine in her eyes. Knightley seems to me to be the opposite — she is immediately striking, in an America’s Next Top Model sort of way, but her looks bore after a while.

All the critics want to remark on the contemporary feel of the film; especially the realistic setting of the Bennet’s house, full of pigs and slop, as well as the claustrophobic ball scenes cramped with sweaty and scruffy middle-class villagers eating and snorting through the evening. It does seem to be a good bit of — as director Wright had hoped for — British realism. I also immediately responded to this film as one of the few remakes to immerse the viewer in the natural country setting. I gawked at the almost indecent girth of a tree trunk in one scene.

But, Deanna Parsi, regional co-coordinator for the Michigan chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), takes the words right out of my mouth:

“What disappointed me most with this film was the fact that they replaced all of that great Jane Austen dialogue, in what I assume was an attempt to modernize for today’s audience. One of Austen’s great strengths (and there are many) is her dialogue, which begs to be read out loud. It seemed to me unnecessary to change it.”

Because the language is altered or left out to save time, ironically enough, the storyline feels rushed. It’s like the base elements of plot are there to keep everything moving, but the subtle development that actually does the work to push Austen’s story along — the quips between Darcy and Lizzy that express simultaneously their tension and their meeting of the minds — is cast aside. As a result, some behavior seems nonsensical. A remake does not have to stick particularly close to the original to be worthwhile, and a movie can have merit regardless, but this one doesn’t because character motivation is absent.

Parsi says: “There has been much made about the changes in this film, like the Brontë-ish landscapes. I think the point that [critics] are missing is that the BBC version was on the whole very true to Austen, especially in the dialogue. Many things in the new version would have been forgiven otherwise if they had done the same.”

This version is unfaithful to Austen’s world, right down to the last few minutes featuring the cheesy tacked-on American ending — different from the one served to viewers in Austen’s homeland — in which Lizzy smooches her husband, Mr. Darcy, over candlelight. One movie reviewer compares it to Sixteen Candles, and it is so John Hughes. Austen would have left that work up to us, but apparently America is too paranoid about matrimony gone wrong — our audiences need to see a happy ending to make sure it’s there, and director Wright is willing to oblige. In a press interview, cast member Donald Sutherland, who plays Mr. Bennet, says: “They changed the film for America, because they decided that America needed a sweeter film. ...”

Austen set the artistic standard for strong female characters with faults, like the ladies on Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls, who, whether they grate on your nerves or you identify with them, have personalities all their own.

In an Austen story, you can open any page and, without reading one name, know who is talking, whether it be the witty and strong-willed Lizzy or her childish sister Lydia; her characters are fully themselves. In this Hollywood adaptation, the younger sisters — the silliest girls in all of England — giggle in uniform anonymity. The gorgeous Mr. Wickham, Mr. Darcy’s nemesis, who’s supposed to be so charming even Lizzy can’t see through his affectation, speaks about two lines through the whole flick. Why on earth does Lizzy fall for him? One is left wondering.

One of the first questions always asked by those who are skeptical of Austen’s work is this: How are her story lines relevant? Clearly the lives of the early 19th century British chicks looking to wed seem very familiar. But Austen also saw the big picture of her times.

Donald Levin, associate professor of English at Marygrove College, has been teaching Austen’s work for 17 years. He says Austen offers the domestic effects of the Napoleonic wars close-up, “not from the bow of the boat, heading into battle.” The Bennet sisters go ga-ga for the home militia. Levin says, “If you look at her books, you find she does have a larger understanding of things going on in the world, such as the slave trade, the Napoleonic wars and upheavals in society. She just represents them differently, at a slant, as Emily Dickinson says. We’re so used to the Patrick O’Brian school of events, like Master and Commander, portraying wars from perspective of those who fight them.”

Levin also cites a sexist dismissal of the importance of domestic life to explain in part why men think they’re hardwired not to like her. In a graduate-level class, he recently taught Emma, Austen’s fourth novel, which is about a young upper-class matchmaker who grows into her role as a woman of high-ranking society. Ten out of 12 students found it boring. “They complained that nothing happens,” Levin says. “I don’t require the students to love it, but I want them to see how complex a story it actually is. Everyone is so used to reading contemporary work, which is fast moving; Austen’s action is subtle.”

But the fun of Austen is her tricky voice. She never throws away words. On the contrary, she chooses them extremely carefully, which means if you’re a reader whose eyes glaze over such phrases as “It’s pretty safe to say,” you’re probably missing a major Austen point that becomes a cause for action. The author introduces you to this challenge, most often, in her first sentences. The opening line of Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

The key word here is “seemed.” Austen rewards her audience for really reading every word. And that’s also the fun of rereading her work, because you can always pick up on something you missed before. The same thing goes for the opening line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Levin says, “on the surface that sounds like a clever and right thing to say in order to launch the marriage plot.” But if you begin to know Jane Austen, you’ll get the impression that any truth universally acknowledged is one that she is planning on obliterating. “She’s saying one thing, but she is also saying something quite different.”

Beyond what’s being said, it’s how Austen says it that, as journalist McGrory said, “grabs you by the throat.” Austen builds her sentences with a rhythm more akin to poetry or music than prose. Levin calls it “a warm bath of safety and security, sinuous and nuanced. You can’t read Jane Austen just to find out what happens or to get info from her, just like you don’t listen to music just to get to the end of it. You listen to enjoy the journey through the piece.”

Professor Levin says his definition of what makes a classic comes from something novelist George Eliot once wrote: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.” Levin believes that a classic work of literature “is one that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as groups, and be transformed.”

Because nuance is so critical in understanding Austen’s work, it’s surprising to learn that Austen’s writing process always began bare bones. She worked and reworked her pieces, building them up in layers. That may seem a conventional way to write, to build something from nothing. But in this newspaper office alone, one writer begins by drawing a visual diagram, another starts with an outline, one swims in details and another can’t even begin unless he has the first and last sentence in his head. I seem to share Austen’s style of getting things going when writing. Actually, it may have been some sort of unconscious influence of hers that made me want to be a writer at age 14, and nearly a decade passed before I even realized that. This may be why those who like her, love her, and are stalwart defenders of her artistry. You rip on Jane Austen, you rip on me, because there is so much of Austen in me. If inspiring that kind of loyalty in readers and writers, some 200 years later, isn’t a sign of a classic, I don’t know what is.

See Also:
Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet
by Donald Levin
Austen keeps writer’s feet on the ground.

Pride & Prejudice is showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111). Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre is presenting Pride and Prejudice, directed by Oakland University’s Karen Sheridan, Dec. 9-16.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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