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.