The first challenge you face when writing about Pride and Prejudice is to get through your first sentences without saying, “it is a truth universally acknowledged…”
—– Martin Amis
Isn’t it true that these words from the clever and satirical opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have been so overused that they have sadly become a cliché in our contemporary language, together with ‘zombies’ and ‘vampires’.
I admit, at first I thought it was a literary version of those lifetime achievement award presentations, where the honoree is showered with superfluous speeches by his/her peers, over champagne and frivolous dinner, something which Jane Austen herself would abhor.
I found out soon enough that between the modest and classic looking covers, Susannah Carson, the editor of the volume, had gathered the essays of 33 writers, not toasts or roasts, but detailed biographical notes, thoughtful musings, heartfelt admiration and in-depth analysis of Austen characters and works. It is a collection of articles stemming from a balanced fusion of sense and sensibility, something that Austen herself would have approved.
I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. Although I’ve not seen any pictures of him, I know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.
It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his (more…)
Some guys would rather have jaw surgery than to read JA. Steve Chandler could well have been one of them. As an English major in college, now a successful writer in his sixties, Steve has miraculously managed to avoid reading Jane Austen all his life, until now. On the other hand, his co-author Terrence N. Hill, an award-winning playwright and author, has read Pride and Prejudice three times, good man. Prompted by their wives, Steve and Terry embarked on this new project in their Two Guys series, taking the risk of treading no man’s land. However, considering their previous Two Guys titles, Two Guys Read Moby Dick and Two Guys Read the Obituaries, they are well-primed for this venture.
Attaining to true Austenesque style, the two lifelong friends read two Jane Austen novels and wrote letters to each other about their thoughts over a six-month period. I must admit I’m surprised (sorry guys) at the incisive look and the fresh perspective they bring to the forefront. Their sharp observations, humorous takes on many issues, their LOL commentaries on popular culture, and intelligent analysis on various topics make this a most gratifying read for both men and women, Janeites or would be’s.
As a biographer, Tomalin’s account of Jane Austen’s life is meticulous and exhaustive. Her analysis is critical and sharp, her writing style bold, precise and cutting. The following excerpts are prime examples.
When speculating about the possible consequence of Mrs. Austen sending her infants away to be raised, Tomalin makes the following inference:
“The most striking aspect of Jane’s adult letters is their defensiveness. They lack tenderness towards herself as much as towards others. You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced with the hard shell; and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends. They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart; and in the adult who avoids intimacy you sense the child who was uncertain where to expect love or to look for security, and armoured herself against rejection.”
Or this to say about mother and daughter:
“Mrs. Austen had a sharp tongue for neighbours, appreciated by her daughter and passed on to her.”
Or, with the episode of Jane accepting and later recanting Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal, Tomalin’s view is clear:
“We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither (more…)
The Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway once made a controversial remark* criticising film versions of literary work as mere “illustrated books”. Regarding Jane Austen’s work, he said:
“Cinema is predicated on the 19th century novel. We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels–there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world.
What a waste of time.”
To the discomfort of Mr. Greenaway, there have been more Austen adaptations made since he spoke. Just weeks ago, BBC announced that a four-episode production of Emma will be launched this fall. The award-winning writer Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, 2006, TV; Our Mutual Friend, 1998, TV) has been working on the new script, and filming has already begun.
Why do we need another Austen adaptation? Do we need another “illustrated book” as Greenaway has argued?
I was surprised to hear such remarks from Mr. Greenaway, himself an art house filmmaker. He certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of the power of the visual. I have expressed my stance against his argument in a previous blogposting entitled Vision not Illustration. But as more Austen adaptations appear, laying ratings and profits aside, I still believe there is an artistic merit in turning book into film.
The visual has an immense power in bringing out the essence of the literary. An image can elicit deep and hidden thoughts, stir up emotions of past experiences, point to new insights, and unleash multiple responses in (more…)
Mansfield Park is probably the most controversial and least favored of all six Austen novels. Drawing the issue of slavery into the limelight, post-colonialist critic Edward Said had certainly stirred up some ripples in alleging Austen’s acceptance of British imperialism with her mention of Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antigua plantation. (1) Susan Fraiman has aptly presented her rebuttal to Said’s argument, noting in particular Austen’s brilliant irony and metaphor upon deeper reading. (2) So here, I would just like to concentrate on Austen’s characterization, which I believe is more in line with her central purpose in Mansfield Park. That brings me to the other major controversy.
What Makes a Heroine?
Published after Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park presents a very different heroine from that of Austen’s previous success. Fanny Price is often measured against Elizabeth Bennet, consequently being looked upon as inferior. On the outset, Fanny is indeed everything Lizzy is not. First of all, she is physically fragile, easily succumbs to exhaustion and fainting spells, very unlike Lizzy who can take on extensive walks in the outdoors, happily treading through miles of muddy paths. No rosy cheeks from such exercise for Fanny. She may have grown into a fair lady at eighteen, but she does not have Lizzy’s athletic prowess, or her pair of fine eyes, the trademark of her exuberance.
“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
Jane Austen, on Emma
Andrew Davies created another proficient and loyal adaptation of Austen’s work, a year after his success with Pride and Prejudice(1995). Emma (1996 TV) is effectively written for the screen, bringing out all the crucial scenes in congruent sequences. Great acting from all, except I must say, Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightly seems to be a bit too severe and lacks the forbearing and benevolent nature he possesses in the book. Maybe because of that, Kate Beckinsale is a more subdued Emma, less spriteful than Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal. I have enjoyed Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, who is more appropriately cast than Toni Collette in the other 1996 movie.
Is Emma such a despicable character that Jane Austen thought no one but herself would much like?
At first, I thought so. Emma is manipulative, imposing and snobbish. In her pride, she has toyed with Harriet’s emotions, misdirected her path, and dominated her decisions. In her blindness, she has misjudged intentions and at times, behaved disdainfully. If Lady Catherine were around, her words targeted at Elizabeth Bennet would be most appropriate here: “Obstinate, headstrong girl!”. Lizzy would also decry: “Insufferable!”
Written By Arti of Ripple Effects
Is it coincidental that PBS chose, of all the six Jane Austen adaptations, to air Pride and Prejudice the Sunday before Valentine’s Day? I think they must have strategically placed it there, knowing that this novel is one of the most-loved books in literature, as the results in recent polls have shown. They must have known that Pride and Prejudice is ranked the third most reread books in Britain, and first in a poll on books that people in the British nation can’t live without.
Other surveys reveal similar results. In a 2003 BBC poll, Pride and Prejudice ranked second as UK’s favorite book. In 2007, it ranked first.
Only in Britain, you might say…but it seems like this is a phenomenon across countries.
In Australia, Austenmania and Janespotting are the common terms to describe this unprecedented occurrence since the mid 1990’s. The Pride and Prejudice miniseries (1995) broke TV ratings, books and sales records.
Jane Austen takes an international stance as it goes multicultural. InBride and Prejudice (2004), the best-loved Austen novel received a dashing Bollywood makeover. Which country doesn’t have its own class system and prejudice? The movie has also put Aishwarya Rai on the world map.
Most recently, Venezuelan director Fina Torres is getting ready to film Sense and Sensibilidad, with screenplay by Mexican Luis Alfaro. Locations of filming will be (more…)