The Revival of Jane Austen

Posted on 06 May 2011 by Aajiz

Austen, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, Jane Austen, Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen Adaptations, Emma Thompson
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Jane Austen; “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not  greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort and to have done with all the rest.”

Jane Austen has returned to bring the world back to its senses.  Hollywood’s honest heroine for 1996 proved to be Jane Austen with Sense and Sensibility nominated for Oscar in seven categories and Emma nominated for Costume Design and selected for Music Original Musical or Comedy Category.  Sense and Sensibility brought Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Screenplay based on materials previously produced or published, making her the first woman to be nominated for both  Best Actress and screenwriter in the same year.

It was in 1796 when Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in her small house in Chawton, Hampshire. Could she ever imagine in her wildest dreams that 200 years later her stories would interest millions of people from all over the world? Could she have believed that  Sense and Sensibility would become the 160th most popular of all films made between 1900 and 1997?  Could we, when studying Jane Austen in school and/or university, foresee that we would rush to the cinemas to see the latest Austen film? Hollywood could…

My reasons for writing this paper are not to discover whether Jane Austen adaptations are successful or not; but rather to find out why they have become so popular in a cinematic context dominated by action films. How could stories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries find an audience in an era dominated by disaster films?
Jane Austen’s popularity can be traced back to the second decade of the 19th century. Although she started writing in her early twenties, her first book was published in 1811. At 36, Austen published Sense and Sensibility on her own expense. She had thought that sales of the book would not repay the expenses, therefore she had put aside some of her limited income. However, Sense and Sensibility not only covered its expenses, but made a profit of about £150.  It was an immediate success; and encouraged Austen to write further novels.  Pride and Prejudice followed in 1814 in three volumes; later the first edition of Mansfield Park, though it was badly printed and full of mistakes, sold out in six months.

Perhaps this popularity had a lot to do with her characters, which appeared down to earth, and recognizable in any society.  Sir Walter Scott praised her for “that exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting”. Even the Prince Regent became an Austen fan  It is often said that he used to keep a series of her novels in each of his residences.

Austen experienced a decline in popularity in the 50 years following her death. However, by 1870 her reputation began to increase once more, chiefly as a result of the work of her niece, J.E. Austen-Leigh, who published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.  The success of that volume was unprecedented: in the preface to the second edition, Austen-Leigh wrote: “The Memoir of my Aunt, Jane Austen, has been received with more favour than I had ventured to expect. The notices taken of it in the periodical press, as well as letters addressed to me by many with whom I am not personally acquainted, show that an unabated interest is still taken in every particular that can be told about her.”

In the 1920s the reaction to Romanticism brought a new impetus to Jane Austen’s popularity. Many readers appreciated her for her sensibility, her balance and her avoidance of wild passion. A proof of the popularity of Austen’s novels at the time can be seen in Rudyard Kipling’s story, called “Janeites”, in which he tells about a group of lieutenants in 1918, trying to make a soldier memorise her novels.

Nonetheless, there were critics – chiefly in the academic world – who disliked Austen.  In 1928, for instance, H.W.Garrod wrote a book named Jane Austen:A Depreciation, in which he defined her as “intolerably sensible”. Such reactions did not have much effect on Austen’s popularity.  Numerous Jane Austen Societies were formed throughout the world; her books were endlessly read and reprinted; some of them were turned into stage plays; whilst Pride and Prejudice was made into a Hollywood film, directed by Robert Z.Leonard, with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy, in 1940.

Within half a century, however,  Jane Austen’s popularity had soared, chiefly as a result of the Andrew Davies’s adapation of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC.  The BBC had dramatised Austen’s novels before – many of them had been turned into serials for the Sunday tea-time slot, notably Pride and Prejudice in 1980; but this was a big-budget adaptation, made for prime-time television in association with the American company the Arts and Entertainment Network. The last of the six episodes was watched by over ten million British viewers, almost 40 percent of the total UK television audience.  In the same year, the BBC also screened an adaptation of Persuasion [which had a limited cinema exposure in London and other major British cities].  Hollywood also helped to re-establish Austen’s reputation; both Sense and Sensibility and Douglas McGrath’s version of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, were released in 1995. Clueless carried the story of Emma and Mr Knightley to a Los Angeles high school in the 1990s.  A year later, another adaptation of Emma appeared on British television, made by the independent company Meridian Television, with Kate Beckinsale in the title role.

The 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice was a real success: so much so that a scandal broke out in a small town near Exeter because the last episode could not be broadcast properly. The people protested, claiming that they were deprived of their rights as licence-payers to watch the end of the series. A video version of the series was released before the last episode was even shown and sold out twice, selling more than 100.000 copies. A companion edition of the novel was also published and sold out. Darcy and Elizabeth once again became the best loved characters of the fiction world.

Although not equalling the success of Pride and Prejudice, the BBC film of Persuasion performed tolerably well at the box-office, particularly in the USA.   Audiences appeared to respond to the main plot of the novel, which centres on the conflict between elderly prudence and the romantic love of two young people.  Although it has been 200 years since Jane Austen started writing Persuasion, the conflict is still valid today. Looking around, many 19 year-old girls can still be seen fighting their parents for the “perfect man”, or simply giving in to their desires. The thoughts of Lady Russell in Persuasion could just as well be uttered now:

    • Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions, to secure even his farther rise in that profession; would be indeed a throwing away which she grieved to think of.

The thoughts of Lady Russell on Anne’s wish to marry Captain Wentworth is the typical small town reaction a well-bred 19 year old girl in Turkey in 1998 would obtain from her superiors, if she should wish to marry a musician, for instance.
As in all Jane Austen stories, the lovers come together in the end. The end gives the readers, or the audience nowadays, hope. “It’s a Cinderella story” says director Roger Michell, “It’s boy meets girl. Girl loses boy. Boy finds girl.”  Reviewing the film on its American release in 1995, the film critic Laura Miller quoted from Persuasion: “Everything united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world and a warm heart”.  Miller added:

        • Thus Jane Austen defines an excellent man in her last novel Persuasion, and dares us to find his equal in our own public and private spheres: Bill Clinton? Ross Perot? Brad Pitt? Kurt Cobain? Perhaps the yearning for such an individual inspires the current wave of Austen novels committed to celluloid.

At the end of 1995 came the film version of Sense and Sensibility. The film created a great interest in the book. The novel, published in America by Signet Books, made it to the top ten in the Publisher’s Weekly lists. The producer of the film Lindsay Doran had felt even before the film had been made, that it would be a success, as she stressed in an interview:

        • The issues in it are still completely fresh. Do you marry the cad or do you marry the nice guy? Do you go after that dangerous guy who makes you feel so great or do you say ‘That’s not going to do me any good,’ and line up with the guy who’s appreciative and loving and solid and will always be there for you and will never make you feel the way the cad makes you feel. It doesn’t stop when you’re 19. This is a problem for women all of their lives, and to a certain degree a problem for men.

Convinced that this project had life in it, she started to look for the perfect scriptwriter and the perfect director. She found her ideal writer in Emma Thompson, who had apparently been reading Austen since she was nine years old. Thompson worked on the script for four years, until she did not know any more which sentences were hers and which were Austen’s. Emma Thompson says that Jane Austen’s works survive because she wrote about subjects that would never lose their importance. “Women still fall in love with the wrong guy, she says, “they still get jilted, they’re still looking for people to marry”.

The person chosen to direct Sense and Sensibility was the Taiwanese director, Ang Lee. The theme of traditional family verses the new generation was familiar to him, particularly as he had worked on The Wedding Banquet, described as the most popular film in Taiwanese history. When it was first announced that Lee was to direct Sense and Sensibility, all translated copies of the novel were sold out in Taiwan.  After reading the first few pages of the script Lee found many links between the two societies, British and Taiwanese. “I found a moral bond with my own traditions, disguised under interesting traditions and dresses. Both societies have a tendency to reach the balance between harmony and the opposites,” says the director.’  Lee had another word on why Jane Austen is still popular today: “Austen tells us how much we have to suffer in order to find real love and truth as well as the pain of growing up. These conflicts in one way or another determine our lives. This is a universal issue.”

Having won the top award of the Writers Guild of America with her Sense and Sensibility adaptation, Emma Thompson says, “I think they [film audiences] have misconceptions about Austen in the same way they have misconceptions about Shakespeare that they won’t be able to understand … But one of the things I like about her books most is that her characters are people that we recognise now.”

The diary Emma Thompson kept while making Sense and Sensibility has been published in book form, both in Britain and America, along with her script. The film received many BAFTA Awards, as wall as seven Oscar nominations and an Oscar for best adaptation. The box office gross revenue was $134.1 million worldwide.

On August 12, 1996, Austen’s own favourite character Emma appeared on screen. She was “faultless in spite of all her faults” as Knightley described her in the book. People adored her. Although the author was British, the places were British, nearly all the actors were British, Emma turned out to be a most American movie. It was definitely Austen’s happiest comedy and as Lisa Scbwarzbaum states in her article “the one best suited to the American way of quality drama”.

Emma was a small budget film, costing not much more than $6 million – eventually it made $37,800,000 worldwide, the 67th most popular film of 1996.  The project itself, as well as the film, was something that excited director Douglas McGrath even before he had started the film.  On February 12, 1994 he wrote in his diary:

        • Today my parents called in panic: Emma Thompson is doing Emma! It was my turn to panic then, I called my agent in L.A. Dave whom I never saw in panic since I first met him, [he] told me only three words: Sense and Sensibility. The three correct words.”

Emma succeeded in being adored by all movie audiences; the heroine, as portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, was good natured, well-meaning, snob. Jane Austen’s character Emma also provided the inspiration for Amy Heckerling’s Clueless; not surprisingly, the story fitted the 1990s California Valley Girl environment perfectly. Heckerling wanted to write a comedy of manners, and needed a story that could happen to any girl. Then she thought of Jane Austen and how much she had enjoyed reading Emma at school when she was a teenager. There is a rich girl in the story, who thinks she understands everything, but she is absorbed so much in her own world, that she can not see at all what others can observe clearly. So Heckerling created an idealized dream world based on Emma.
Clueless appeared on screen on July 19, 1995. The box office gross revenue in the first week was $20 million. Emma herself had changed into a popular high school student of 15, named Cher Horowitz. Tai, who is a new student helped by Cher, was Harriet Smith. Mr. Knightley happened to be Josh, Cher’s college-age step brother. Even Mr. Elton was actually named Elton.  The film demonstrates once again the fact that although times might have changed, people have stayed the same. The gypsy scene in Emma has been adopted perfectly to prove this point. The gypsies who threaten Harriet Smith in Emma have changed into gang bullies at the local mall who threaten Tai. Tai is rescued by Christian, just like Harriet is rescued by Frank Churchill.  Despite these modernisations, the film appealed to Austen aficionados everywhere.  A “Janeite” Carolyn Nelson observed:

        • I finally rented Clueless this weekend and saw it for the first time. Not the typical movie experience, since I was scrutinising every line for the parallel in Jane Austen, but fun! I think my biggest laugh-out-loud was when Cher was sitting in class realizing she ought to find a guy for herself. The sultry music rolls and Christian, sensual mouth, pompadour, and jacket slung over his shoulder, steps into the dassroom bathed in a golden glow. I screamed, “It’s Frank!!!” – my son thought I was nuts.

Examining the works of Jane Austen, the popularity of her novels can be based mainly on the universal themes she chose, her familiarity with her subject, and her optimism. She has focused on themes that never die, such as marriage, social pressure, and the generation gap. The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice can be considered one of the most famous of all Bnglish comedies of manners:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In the material world of the 1990s, on the threshold of a new century, the general view on marriage has not changed much from the beginning of the l9th century.

Social pressure, a very popular theme of Austen, still exerts a very powerful influence over people’s lives.  The same thing holds true for the generation gap. Although different generations have learnt to live in peace to some extent, it is nonetheless true that however much younger and older members of some families try to understand one another, there are still many points on which they can never agree.

Jane Austen has been criticized by some critics for her want of imagination.  However, she saw herself not as a so-called ‘great author’ but rather someone who “knows only her mother tongue and has read little in that … The most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress”.  She knew her capacity and she used it. When J.S. Clarke, a clergyman, suggested that she should write a historical novel she said: “No, I must keep to my own style and go my own way. And though I may never succeed in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”  She has demonstrated that ordinary people can have interesting lives, and this is welcomed even in the image-besotted society of the 1990s.

Apart from this realism, however, Jane Austen also to some extent helps to fulfil readers’ wishes and desires: “The unfolding narrative [of Mansfield Park] is at one level a Cinderella story of bow her worth is recognised by the hero who, in spite of obstacles, carries her off at the end of the novel”, as Dr. Ian Littlewood observes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel.  This kind of notion is also evident in popular films of recent years, such as Pretty Woman.
Jane Austen does not punisb even the worst villains. At the end everybody is happy and everybody has undergone a process of self-development.  As Laura Miller explains:

        • Finally, Austen’s novels display the serene conviction that decency, civility and common sense will be rewarded. Not by the hand of God, but simply because they lead to warm and lasting relationships and lives free of turmoil, dissatisfaction and debt. What would she think of the contemporary pressure to judge by appearances, seek our own advantage at all times, indulge our most childish caprices while conforming slavishly to trends, and equate material wealth with happiness? Probably that it was too familiar and none too sensible. And perhaps we’re beginning to suspect she was right.”22

Considering all that has been said on Jane Austen and her works, Hollywood made her a gift for her 220th birthday with the film versions of her novels released in 1995. And the gift has been well received by audiences. After all the action and disaster films, it was time for a little rest and a little hope. So as Fanny says about nature in Mansfield Park, we could say about these latest films: “Here’s harmony!… Here’s repose… Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could never be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world.”

Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J....

Sketch by Cassandra Austen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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  2. Persuasion (July Discussion) | Bossard Booklovers Says:

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