“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”
– Jane Austen
J. and I were talking about Jane Austen a while back (he hates her) and he voiced a common male complaint about Pride and Prejudice, “Women like it just because they want to end up with Mr. Darcy.”
“I don’t think so,” was my response. “I think smart women like it because they want to be like Elizabeth.”
And I stand by that. Literary-ily speaking, she was one of the first admirable heroines in the relatively new form known as the novel. Previously, women generally were getting carried off by brigands/lecherous squires, fainting at every available opportunity, and dealing with ghosts, vampires, and monks who sell themselves to the Devil. Alternatively, she is intelligent, lively, has a sense of humor, has a strained relationship with her mother but is fiercely loyal to her family, has personality quirks, won’t marry a repulsive man just because he’ll inherit her house someday, and makes mistakes. In other words, a fairly normal woman.
Suddenly, shoveling through the supernatural and sentimentality, along came Jane Austen who decided to write about the sphere she moved in, the concerns she and her peers dealt with from day to day, and to make the everyday interesting. Austen is one of my favorite writers, not because of the romance, but because she is historically important. And because of this skill in skewering the foibles of society and people with wit and sarcasm.
Now, not all Austen adaptations are created equal, and I should know. Mum, Snickers, and I have spent many a Sunday afternoon enjoying them:
Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (A&E, 1996) is the definitive P&P version. It’s basically the book in film form, which can hardly be said of most novel adaptations. It’s certainly the top Austen film, in my opinion. Lovely score, good costuming, and excellent acting. J., when his protests against me watching it have been overcome, will grudgingly hunker down with his laptop on the sofa ignoring it, but will invariably make some kind of commentary, “Darcy’s awkward,” or more likely, “Wow. Her mother needs a sock stuffed in her mouth.” My only real complaint with this version is that Jane is not attractive in the slightest. Rosamund Pike of the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice is a better beauty, although the only really good thing about that version is the music. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I already know I’m going to catch it from Marie for this but Emma (A&E, 1997) with Kate Beckinsale is my favorite version. She loves the Emma with Gwyenth Paltrwo, which I don’t at all. And the latest Emma with Ramola Garai, though it got mixed reviews from the crazed Austenites (with whom I do not see eye to eye), I quite liked too. In fact, this novel seems to be the most debated because main character is a bit spoiled, a busybody, and stupidly manipulative in only the way young girls who think they are more clever than they actually are can be. But I like the character of Emma quite a lot. All of Austen’s characters grow, but this is an instance of one of them growing up. “Silly things do not cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”
Sense and Sensibility
Up until recently, I liked the 1995 Sense & Sensibility with the divine Emma Thompson, but the BBC recently did a version (which aired on my beloved PBS stateside) which I think a lot better. The ages of the actresses were more appropriate and much of the novel which had been left out of the first adaptation was put back in, making the story a bit more as rich as it should have been. And as much as I love Alan Rickman’s broodiness (in everything he’s ever done), I thought Col. Brandon seemed much more noble and likable, which he ought to be, instead of lurking in corners and sighing dramatically. I don’t go much for the Byronic types. They’re aggravating. “She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.”
Masterpiece Theatre’s version of Northanger Abbey is really fun. It’s Austen’s lone almost purely satirical novel, mercilessly lampooning those Gothic monks and ghosts previously mentioned. Both this and this version of Persuasion are really very good so it’s a coin toss there. And if I had to choose between this verision and this version of Mansfield park, I lean toward the latter, even though neither are very good. Mostly because Fanny Price is the dullest of dull heroines and does next to nothing throughout the course of the book and the second film tried to make her likable.
And because, as with Shakespeare, the most annoying sorts of people are those who take things too seriously, I’m flat out ordering all of you to hop on over to the bookstore and buy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! Partly because it is uproariously funny, partly because even J. liked it. Spoiler alert. Darcy, on the occasion of his first, pompous proposal is rewarded for his pains with a roundhouse kick to the face. Alas, Mrs. Bennett is little changed: her husband is trying to keep his daughters from the clutches of the undead…but she’s still trying to get them married.
And lest we forget…there is that hilarious “post-modern moment” in Lost in in Austen.