Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Lighting a Candle at the Shrine of Jane Austen

Last night at 11 o'clock I got the urge to watch a movie. Reason #8 why I'm starting to suspect I have vampire in my family tree. Anyway, I perused my DVD shelf for several minutes trying to decide what I was in the mood for. Easy. Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

S&S (the movie) introduced me to Jane Austen. Before I watched it - and I remember exactly when it was that I first saw it - Austen was no more to me than one of those female writers who wrote "a long time ago" and who I always mixed up with the Brontes. I'd read Jane Eyre and attempted Wuthering Heights and had heard of Pride and Prejudice and couldn't tell you who had written what to save my life. I do have them all straight now, redeeming myself as a reader of good literature as well as the not so good stuff. But honestly, I can't even remember what JE was about (I need to reread it now that I'm older) and I've still never read WH in its entirety.

But how in the world had I missed Austen?

Ye, gads, that woman's stories had it all. Heroes with tortured pasts. Poverty-ridden women forced into spinsterhood until they are saved by roguish nobles with hearts of gold. Family scandal. Heroines who don't realize that their best friend is actually their one true love. Broken engagements and dying for love and sob-inducing confessions of devotion. I'm telling you, she must have invented every single romance cliché in the book! All the very best ones - the ones that keep me reading romance novel after romance novel - Jane thunk 'em up and wrote 'em down. Perfectly.

Okay, yeah, I don't recall any secret babies or amnesia victims or billionaire's/cowboy's/Navy SEAL's mistresses in any of Austen's collective works. I admit I haven't read them all, though, so maybe she did dabble in those themes, too. Even if she didn't and we writers of today can lay claim to such original plots, are we really proud to admit it? There's something to be said for simplicity, and Austen's straightforward approach to romance is an example we all should keep in our sights when reaching for a fraction of her greatness.

Whatever crisis must have occurred in my growing-up that led me to miss Austen during my first go-round with the romance novel genre (the Woodiwiss/Lindsey years), I owe a big thank you to Emma Thompson for setting me straight. S&S led me to snatch up the BBC/A&E version of Pride and Prejudice the moment I learned of its existence, and it is surely one of my top five favorite movies of all time. I could determine to watch only an hour or two of P&P - swear on the head of my oldest child that I'll turn it off after the first segment - and know full well that when minute 120 turns over, I ain't going anywhere. It's why I didn't even look at it when I perused the DVD shelf last night. I might be part vampire but I'm a smart part vampire who has a 7 am wakeup call. Watching only a bit of P&P is like have only one M&M out of the entire 1 lb. bag. You're either a masochist or a saint if you can do either.

I do confess that I enjoy the movie adaptations of Austen's stories a bit more than reading the books (I say, waiting nervously for the literature gods to shoot a bolt of lightning at my head). Not that I don't love reading the books, mind you, but they do require a little more brainpower than I sometimes want to exert when looking for pure mindless entertainment. You have to admit that the manner of speaking and writing is different than today so there is some level of translation required. And as in any book-to-movie adaptation done well, you really can immerse yourself into Austen's world when you watch people wearing period clothing and traipsing through grand estates sprinkled across the bucolic English countryside. The stiff formality - all that bowing and curtsying and Mrs. Dashwood, Miss Dashwood, Miss Marianne stuff - is driven home when you watch the ritual play out over and over again, demonstrating what things must have been like back in the good old days when ladies were ladies and gentlemen...well, you get the idea.

Which leads me to a sidebar - a big question to all of you Regency era writers and readers who are very well versed in the manners of the time. Did husbands and wives really address each other as Mr. So-and-So and Mrs. So-and-So all the time? Did they only do this in public or even in the privacy of their own homes? I just cannot imagine Elizabeth saying (post marriage, of course) "Oh, yes, Mr. Darcy! I love it when you kiss me there!"

What was I saying? Ah, yes. Movie versus book. Since my introduction to Austen was via a movie, I did hunt up a copy of S&S to actually read. I do that a lot. If I see a movie based on a book and I like the movie, I'll turn to the book to see if I can get more. Because that's exactly what I want - more. More Austen. More of her fascinating characters and unique world and especially, more of that on-the-edge-of-my-seat wonder about the romance. Will they all find happiness? Will Elizabeth ever know what Mr. Darcy did for her? Will Edward Ferrars actually marry Lucy Steel when it is so clear he loves Elinor? *Sigh*

And therein lies the problem with Austen. She's gone. There is no more. She gives us the requisite HEAs, but she still leaves us dangling because by the time we reach the last page, we've come to care about these people. We want to see them being happy. For all the readers who disdain series books, I challenge you to tell me after reading P&P if you would not welcome another volume that gives you more.

I do have a specific remark about S&S (the movie version, again). How in the world would Marianne ever think she wanted pretty-boy Willoughby over Colonel Brandon?

See, Austen was a mystery writer, too. Renaissance woman!


c1h2a3p4 said...

The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite movies, too.

Anonymous said...

If you're thinking of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle BBC adaptation, it's a TV series, not a movie - 6 2-hour episodes, as I recall. Wonderful stuff!

As for the formality thing, don't forget that most marriages in that era were arranged for reasons of property, money, title etc. Husbands and wives were usually strangers to each other when they married, and not much changed afterwards. The aristocracy tended to spend as little time with spouses as possible, which meant that spouses continued to be strangers. But that kind of formality between spouses wasn't that unusual and even continued well beyond the Regency years.

As for Jane Austen - absolutely. One of my very favourite authors. I have all six of her completed novels - if you haven't yet read Emma, what are you waiting for?! Her Gothic is perhaps for me the least interesting (Northanger Abbey), but I believe it was intended to be a spoof of the likes of Maria Radcliffe.

Not in the same league, but still vastly entertaining and far better than many of today's badly-researched and anachronistic Regencies: Georgette Heyer?