Reading about reading Jane Austen

Like just about every female English major on the planet, I am a Jane-ite. I read the books. I watched the movies. I watched the various miniseries. It was a screen version — the 1980 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” shown on Masterpiece Theater — that first sent me to read Austen as a youngster. As an adult in the 1990s, when the BBC began a new round of Austen adaptations, I bought the new P&P miniseries on VHS. I bought it again on DVD. I go to the movies for new adaptations and then I buy THEM on DVD. I own a gigantic Modern Library Jane Austen compendium and a couple of the novels as individual volumes.  They’re free on Kindle so I have them there, too.

I have never, however, been a big consumer of the rest of Janeworld — the zombie mash-ups, the novels where Jane solves crimes, etc. I read The Jane Austen Book Club and thought it was OK. But generally, I prefer the original.

Only I realized recently that it has been quite some time since I’ve actually read the original. For the last decade and a half — yes, OK, since the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — my Austen consumption has been almost entirely onscreen.

And that’s too bad, as William Deresiewicz reminded me in his appealing new memoir, “A Jane Austen Education.” He doesn’t diss the movies (well he does, a little; more on that later). But his focus is all on the books, the actual Austen, and the life lessons her small but significant output offered him.

The book is broken into six sections, one for each of the published novels, with a lesson or moral value he received from each. That can feel a little pat and I disagree with a couple of his choices — he has “Persuasion,” my favorite Austen novel, teaching him about true friendship. He makes a good case but, to me, that novel is all about constancy, and learning to have the courage to do what’s right for you, even if the people around you disapprove.

As a memoir of a relatively privileged, intelligent but self-absorbed young man’s journey to self-awareness and maturity, “A Jane Austen Education” is fine — it’s just that memoirs aren’t really my thing, especially memoirs about learning not to be a jerk. Congratulations! I’m happy for you and those around you, really, but is that worth a couple hours of my time? As an evaluation of Austen’s work, by someone trained to think critically about literature but who writes for what Virginia Woolf famously called the common reader, it is superb. And it has inspired me to pull out my 1,364-page, 3-pound (yes, I weighed it) edition of the Complete Novels. They are arranged in order of publication; I’m 56 pages into “Sense and Sensibility” and wondering why I’ve been neglecting Jane — the real Jane, not her on-screen stepchildren — so long.

About the movies: While I will swoon along with everyone else when Colin Firth-as-Darcy dives into the pond, my favorite screen adaptation remains “Persuasion” starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. I’ve always had a Ciaran Hinds thing. And more significantly, it was the first Austen adaptation that struck me as remotely realistic — the rooms were small and dark, the clothing was not unfailingly elegant, Anne Elliott did look like a woman past her prime and depressed. And the acting is superb. Plus you don’t need to commit an entire weekend (or sick day home on the couch) to watch it.

My husband’s favorite, on the other hand, is the 1999 Mansfield Park. He says it’s because it’s the only Austen adaptation that acknowledges the existence of sex. Which is just why Deresiewicz, apparently, hated it: he refers to it as a “travesty” because it “turns prudish Fanny Price into a naughty and bold young rebel with teasing eyes and a sensuous mouth.”

And  for the record, the Kate Beckinsale Emma is way better than the Gwyneth Paltrow version and I much prefer the recent (2008) two-part BBC Sense and Sensibility to the much-lauded Emma Thompson/Ang Lee movie. Love Emma and all  but Elinor Dashwood is supposed to be nineteen. And Hugh Grant (way too good-looking for Edward Farrars) looks like he just left a fancy dress party at Oxford or something. The more recent version didn’t have any big name actors I recognized (unless you count Mark Gatiss, the hapless patient-killing veterinarian from “League of Gentleman” as the useless older brother) but it was, like the huge majority of BBC productions, well executed all around.



Filed under fiction, nonfiction, recommended reading

3 responses to “Reading about reading Jane Austen

  1. First of all, he’s a guy. Of course his take on the reading would be different than yours. No, don’t argue with me. It would be. I really cannot imagine my husband’s take on Pride and Predjudice.

    Secondly, Clarissa Pinkola Estes did this to fairy tales in Women Who Run with the Wolves. Hey, I didn’t get THAT out of Hansel and Gretel.

    Third, Colin Firth is so hot and sulky in that movie, who needs reading.

  2. I’m not speaking for all guys, but I’ve noticed that most of us are forced to read Jane in a class (or to impress a female fan), and have a tendency to pass it off as romantic girly slush, and an exercise in delayed (really delayed) gratification.
    Maybe that’s the watershed between the sexes when it comes to our Ms. Austen: women seem better at, and enjoy, the anticipation more than men.

    It sounds like he’s taking that tack, since he’s so put off by actual sex in Mansfield Park. The actual act takes place outside the covers in the others.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing her. The themes are the basis of nearly every romantic comedy, so a lot of writers, studios, and actors have her to thank for a paycheck. And the whole cottage industry you mentioned. I read the zombie version of P&P, and just yesterday saw a prequel to it.

    Full disclosure: I’ve only read Pride & Prejudice, and confess that halfway though was totally exhausted by the entire Bennet family. Sorry. So if I was going to read another, (and mean a free Kindle edition) which one should it be?

    Oh and yeah, Colin Firth is dreamy.

    • boneislandbooks

      Well, Persuasion is my favorite — not just because I really like the movie adaptation — but maybe because it’s NOT about 19-year-old girls successfully navigating the marriage mart. What really distinguishes Austen, and what is lost necessarily but sadly to a large extent in the movies, is her social satire and characterization — you get a bit of it, of course, but there’s so much more room in the novels that you REALLY appreciate it. Or at least I do. She is MEAN sometimes, or at least sharp, and you just get a sense of “I wish I could say/write that stuff about people I have to put up with sometimes.”

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