Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Discovering Jane

Hi, my name is Grace and I'm an Austen addict.  It's true.  I think it's genetic because my mother and my sister are both self-proclaimed addicts, too.  My father and husband are, thankfully, very patient men and put up with the three of us constantly watching and talking about Austen novels and their subsequent TV and film adaptations.  And we know we're not alone, too!

My love affair with all things Austen started when I was 15, when the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice hit the small screen (a program which, no offense, you'd have to be living under a rock not to have heard of).

They ran one episode a week for something like six weeks and I was hooked from the first 30 seconds.  It is so perfectly cast, set, designed and scripted - there's not a thing I'd change.  It stars the now very celebrated Colin Firth - a perfect Mr. Darcy (aka my boyfriend. :)  That was my first foray into Austen, but I promptly devoured the book which proved even more wonderful, although it must be said that the BBC production doesn't let down the book at all.  The recent film version, however, is another matter entirely, but I digress.  After P&P, I fell in love with Emma (back when I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was actually English because the first few films I remember seeing her in - Sliding Doors, Emma, Shakespeare In Love - she sported a very posh English accent, indeed).  Then there was Sense and Sensibility, and my love of Austen was officially official.  :)

What is it about Austen (and her contemporaries) that have us all so enamoured?  On a day-to-day basis, our lives are nothing like the lives of the Bennetts or the Woodhouses or the Dashwood's.  Most of us don't have maids following us around, getting us dressed and fixing our hair.  Or cooks or butlers or, in the cases of the very well-to-do, an entire staff of men and women there to answer our beck and call (although that does sound rather nice, now that I think about it!).  Our lives now are very different now.  It's not uncommon for someone to marry above or beneath themselves, nor is now frowned on as it was in days of old.  I mean who would thought that the heir to the British throne would marry, well, a middle class commoner?  :)

I think part of what makes Austen so popular and relevant today is that her characters are so recognizable - I'm sure you must know someone show is an eternal romantic like Jane, embarrassingly ridiculousness like Lydia, completely oblivious (and snobby) like Emma or proud like Lizzie?  I certainly do (and no, I will not name names!).  I even find myself in her pages. :)  Like her characters, I think we still feel the social pressures of class and wealth.  Whether we like it or not, money is still as vital as it was back then.  There are still elegant urban-ites and simple country folk.  As with her characters, we may feel smothered by our parents and their plans for us which conflict so fundamentally with what we want for ourselves.  I know there have been times in my life when I've felt trapped by a situation and want nothing more than to be free of it (and even some of the people in it).

But it's her approach to affairs of the heart that have the greatest draw for me.  There's an innocence in how she she writes of love, but that does not at all mean that she lacks depth or passion or true romance.  Like her heroines, I know I'm still ruled by my heart.  Maybe most of us are - we still want to marry for love, although it is true that not everyone does.  We still feel all the frustrations of loving someone you can't have, of a love that can never be realized, of being loved by someone you don't love in return, or of  having your heart broken and then, when all seems lost, finding someone to fix it - perhaps someone you would have never imagined could.  Like her characters, we still get a thrill from stolen glances and undeclared love, or the suspense of a slow blossoming love, often undiscovered or unacknowledged by both people involved.  Then, finally, when it is discovered, the internal dialog of "does he love me? / does she know I love her?" - a sweet suspense, one her characters experience and we do too, as we read.

When her character's hearts are broken it's almost tangible, because haven't we all been there?  (If you haven't I don't even want to hear about it!)  And when they get their happy ending (which, lets face it, almost always happens), you live that joy, too.  Who doesn't love a book that can make you experience a whole range of emotions in a few hundred pages, one that allows you to live all different kinds of love, sorrow, frustration and happiness without ever leaving your couch.

Ok, I'm going to stop my rambling before this turns into a novel!  If you haven't picked up one of her books, please do.  She writes with passion, heart and great humour - what is not to love?  It might sound cliche but Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, although Emma and Sense and Sensibility are also wonderful.   Boys, if you're still reading at this point, which I'm sure you're not, give Austen a try.  Even if you hate it, the lady in your life will be seriously impressed!

If you prefer to visually ease yourself into Austen, here's what I recommend:

The only version of Pride and Prejudice worth watching, in my book, is the BBC production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as the two leads (see photo above).  There isn't one weak character in the production and the script is very true to the book.  It has been argued that their depiction of the Bennett's home and life is too rich for what the book suggests, but to me that's a minor flaw I can live with.  Mrs. Bennett is outrageously spectacular, as is Mr. Collins.  It's a series definitely worth buying, even if you haven't seen it yet.

This recent film adaptation with Keira Knightly was disappointing on so many levels.

That Mr. Darcy was without depth, passion and was completely boring.  Do not let this be your first experience of P&P!  I will say, however, that it is a feast for the eyes - absolutely beautifully shot and the score - almost exclusively piano played by Jean Yves Thibaudet - is gorgeous. But everything else - disappointing.

Then there's Emma - three good versions to choose from.  I can only vouch for these two:

But my cousin-to-be tells me that this one is better than both of those, and I'm about to watch it too:
Can you believe that that's Kate Beckinsale?!
Then there's Sense and Sensibility.  I have seen this and I love it.

I also saw this and wasn't entirely impressed:

I enjoyed this version of Mansfield Park, but admit it's the only version I've seen:

(There is also a production with Billie Piper but even from the cover, I think I'd instantly not like it because of her.  I know that sounds terrible but it's true.  If you've seen it and think I'm totally wrong, do tell).

I loved this version of Persuasion (I can count on two fingers how many blond men (guys? boys? males?) I've fancied in my life but this blond Cpt. Wentworth is absolutely dreamy):

I also quite enjoyed this interpretation on Jane Austen's life (although Anne Hathaway's spotty accent is a bit distracting).  They say it's based on fact, which makes it even better and lets the imagination run wild.  It's beautifully shot so worth a look for that alone.  And did I mention James McEvoy??

I've never seen any cinematic interpretation of Northanger Abbey so if you can recommend one please do.

Here are some other non-Austen, period-drama goodies (I've shown the film/series versions below but most of them are books, as well):

Downton Abbey - currently hooked on and staying up far too late to watch!

North and South


Jane Eyre - although I can't wait to see the new film version coming out soon.  Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.... :swoon:

Gosford Park

Upstairs Downstairs

Are you with me?  Do you love Austen or period stories/films?  Which is your favorite?  What have you seen that I haven't and must?  Do tell me all in the comments!


  1. Great post! I love Jane Austen too. One of my favorite books of all time though is definatly Jane Eyre. I cant wait for the movie to come out.

  2. Oh I love Austen too! Have you read The Jane Austen Book Club? It's a great book. They made a movie from it as well, which is good, but not nearly as good as the book. There's also a new fictional biography of Austen called The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. It's on my Amazon wish list, I just haven't gotten to it yet. I have to completely agree with the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. It made me fall in love with Austen. Classic.