Thursday, January 24, 2013

Enjoying Austen

In 2004, I was roommates with a wonderful girl whom I had nicknamed “Lindy.” There are tons of different ways she had an impact on my life, and just one of them was introducing me to the works of Jane Austen.

Of course I knew Jane Austen was a novelist, and wrote in England during the beginning of the nineteenth century. I knew she had been and still is wildly popular, but I had never read any of her works, nor seen any of the many television programs or movies based on her works.

Lindy owned a copy of the BBC 1995 miniseries Pride and Prejudice, which she watched (in addition to many other things) over and over. Several years later I could be found on the couch in my mother in law’s living room, watching her copy of it; my husband would come home from work and remark, “Is she watching Pride and Prejudice again?”

I had already seen the movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow (and also Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, but that hardly bears mentioning). My mother-in-law also owned a copy of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. There is nothing I love more than a film adaptation that stays true to the original writing, so before watching Sense and Sensibility, I decided to see how close that the movies I’d seen had managed to get. I tromped off to the library and came home, arms laden with Austen.

I smiled through Pride and Prejudice, blinked through Emma, and yawned through Sense and Sensibility. Sitting down to reflect, I decided that I had liked reading Pride and Prejudice, and that the BBC had done a wonderful job when transferring it to film. There were a few things that they left out that I would liked to have seen, but I was overall very satisfied with it.

I only managed to get through Emma because I knew what was going to happen; I would find myself mumbling as I read, “Get to the point, yes, she and Frank are having a good time, whatever, when is the next thing?”

There were several times that I almost abandoned Sense and Sensibility entirely. I would say to my husband, “they’re just sitting around! How did she manage to get this published?!” Immediately upon finishing it, I rushed upstairs to watch the movie. “Yes!” I declared as the credits rolled at the end. “That is how it should have been paced!” The movie left a couple of things out that it didn’t have to, but at least things were happening in a timely manner. I don’t honestly care how many times the Miss Dashwoods went to dine at Sir Middleton’s residence or what Mrs. Jennings said to anyone; I felt like I was waiting forever for something to happen.

The one thing Jane Austen’s novels do give us is an accurate representation of the times. In those days, people (with the means to do so) sat around and passed the time. When I read one of her novels, I often feel the way I’m sure I would have had I been sitting there with the characters: “I’m so bored! When is something going to happen?!”

Several months later I sat down to tackle Persuasion. “What are you reading?” a friend asked me, seeing the disgusted look on my face. I told him, adding, “I’m five chapters in and nothing has happened. I’m not even sure who the main character is supposed to be.” He rolled his eyes at me. “...Then why are you reading it?” I put it down. I dug around through the entertainment center until I found my mother-in-law’s copy of the 1995 film starring Amanda Root. I decided that I might enjoy the book better if I watched it first.

And I did. The movie helped me to enjoy the book. When I would have been languishing with Ann in Uppercross, I waited patiently because I knew that soon Captain Wentworth would come. Instead of being tricked by Mr. Elliot’s fine manners, I knew he was bad news all along.

I decided to take on Mansfield Park without watching a drama adaptation. It was a mistake. I waited all through Mansfield Park for her to get to the point. I kept thinking, “surely something will start to happen soon.” I should have expected that, since that’s how I felt while reading all of her other novels (even at times during Pride and Prejudice), but the thing I didn’t expect was the heroine: she was completely unlikeable.

It was the first Austen heroine that I didn’t feel up to rooting for. Elizabeth is so sassy and independent that you can’t help but hope that she ends up happy. I liked Emma for the same reason (but on the other hand she is terribly manipulative and that’s not at all something I admire). Elinor is happy and vivacious and continues to at least pretend to be even when her more vivacious sister is not. Ann is quiet and strong, accepting everything her terrible father and sister put upon her without complaining. But I couldn’t understand Fanny.

Fanny is quiet and nervous. Her manner almost invites her aunt’s ridicule, so it’s hard to feel sorry for her, even though her aunt does nothing but criticize her. She doesn’t stand up for herself, doesn’t put her cousins in their place when she thinks they are wrong, and doesn’t say anything when the man she loves borrows her things for the use of the girl he likes.

So while she (and I) sat around waiting for something to happen, I had plenty of time to ponder: “Is this really an Austen heroine?” The only thing she has in common with the other heroines is that she eventually ends up with the guy she wants. 

I disliked Mansfield Park so much that I’m not sure that watching a film adaptation would make me like it any better (though that was how I felt about Sense and Sensibility when I finished it). As much as I like the eventual outcome (which is for the main character to end up with whoever she was meant to), it sure seems like it takes Jane Austen a long time to get there. That is why dramatizations are so nice. They trim down things that I don’t have to wait around for the plot to show up.

I didn’t want to shout all my opinions about Jane Austen’s work without having read all of it. So for my next trick, I will attempt to enjoy Northanger Abbey. It’s downloaded, ready and waiting on my kindle, and my plan is to keep track of the things I like (and most likely more often don’t like) as I read it to see if it follow the same trend or is different than any of her other novels. I think it will be pretty interesting to do it this way, since I have read all of her other works and can compare it to the rest of them as I go along.

[Insert interlude]

Since writing the above, I have done quite a few things, including watching a dramatization of Mansfield Park, reading through the entirety of Jane Austen’s works, watching a film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, and then another read-through of Northanger Abbey.

My opinions haven’t changed much.

The Mansfield Park that I attempted to enjoy was the 1999 version starring Frances O’Connor. While her Fanny was infinitely more likeable, the main problem with her was that she wasn’t Fanny. Austen’s Fanny was quiet and weepy and submissive. O’Connor’s Fanny was quietly rebellious and sassy, but still respectful. I disliked the whole slavery aspect that they added to the plot, despite what respected literary critics may think; Sir Thomas may have been away in Antigua, but I don’t believe that Austen was trying to make any kind of statement about his business there, rather it was just a convenient way of getting him out of the picture so that his children could behave the way they wanted to for a while. Really, the best part of the whole movie is when Fanny finally gets the man of her dreams. Her attitude while listening to him is just like the reader’s when Austen finally gets around to mentioning that the two would finally be a couple: distracted and slightly disinterested.

The explosion in the 1999 version of
Mansfield Park
My final thoughts on this particular novel’s chances of being dramatized in a way that would be true to the book are that it couldn’t be. In my opinion, there would be no point to getting Mansfield Park on film. It is dreary, the main character is boring, and nothing interesting happens quickly enough to keep a film audience interested in watching it. Maybe if they added some explosions.

Now to relate my thoughts on Northanger Abbey. I am an Austen fan on my own. I haven’t really read anything about what other people think about her novels, but you hear things. Obviously, I know that everyone loves Pride and Prejudice. I’ve also heard that Mansfield Park is held to be a perfect snapshot of the age, fawned over by critics. But the collective assessment I’d managed to glean about Northanger Abbey before reading it was “Ugh.” I was easily able to ignore this opinion, because of the way my own opinion clashed with everyone else’s about Mansfield Park. I decided I would form my own ideas about Northanger Abbey, so I did.

It was a delight. Sentences in, I was checking to make sure I had the right book, and hadn’t gotten ahold of something else by mistake. Catherine’s name was right there, seven words in; I didn’t have to search for it or wait for it to become clear. Her family was loving, with no quarrelsome mother to be found, and though large, not impoverished like the Prices. Though she wasn’t naturally clever like Elinor, she wasn’t under the impression that she was God’s gift to her acquaintance (you would never have heard of Emma blushing at such a sad compliment: “...she is almost pretty today”). The thing I found most amusing in the first chapter was Austen’s determination to turn Catherine, who seemed the least likely canidate for a heroine, into one worthy of the name.

I enjoyed all the characters in Northanger Abbey. Isabella’s determination in every instance, John Thorpe’s love of appearances and his willingness to bend whatever truth he felt necessary to ensure that others (and sometimes even himself) thought the best of him, and Catherine’s hopeful ignorance, or as Austen puts it, “her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”

Without a doubt, the best part about Northanger Abbey is Henry Tilney. I loved his sarcastic humor and his witty teasing. He didn’t mind that Catherine was ridiculous, and realized that her wild fantasies about the death of his mother may have been partly his fault, for indulging her imaginings about the mysterious abbey in the first place. He follows her home as soon as he hears that she has been sent there, and does everything he can to correct her misconceptions about her stay at Northanger and her unceremonious exit.

Adorable, right?
I also enjoyed the film adaptation that I watched, the 2007 version starring Felicity Jones. Her face was exactly as I imagined Catherine’s to be: sweet, innocent, and often confused. I enjoyed the film, and wasn’t distracted by any changes the screenwriter had made. Probably the best thing about the film was the casting. Catherine Walker is sweet as Miss Tilney, Carey Mulligan gorgeous and flirty as Isabella, and J J Feild handsome (but not too handsome) as Henry Tilney.

I loved Northanger Abbey. It was refreshing and fun and not at all like Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility, and had more of the whimsy that Austen shows in parts of Pride and Prejudice. But maybe I was only able to appreciate it because I had already suffered through the long evenings with Elinor and Marianne. Maybe I was only charmed by Catherine’s innocence because I had already tried so hard to find Fanny likeable. Maybe, by the time I read Northanger Abbey, I had finally learned to appreciate the way life was when Austen wrote her novels, and what to expect. I had to watch dramatizations to enjoy all of Austen’s other novels, but I didn’t watch Northanger Abbey until I had enjoyed reading it.

For Christmas, I gave my cousin a tiny ‘Complete Works of Jane Austen in Five Minutes.’ “They’re pretty good,” I told her, “if you have the patience to sit through the boring parts of some of them. If you read this first, or watch the movies, you’ll at least know what you’re waiting for,” which pretty much sums up my feelings about the works of Jane Austen.

They’re not like anything else being written today. In the twenty first century, we’re all about action, a twist in the middle, and an extra twist at the end. We want things to happen in the books we read and the movies we watch; we don’t want to wait. That’s why it’s sometimes refreshing to pick up a book that’s paced the same way things were at the turn of the century 200 years ago. Jane Austen’s heroines were willing to wait for things to happen, and so were her readers. Today we have dramatizations to make the waiting easier, but the novels are well worth reading, if you don’t mind waiting along with the characters.

After all, “when a young lady is to be a heroine... something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”

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