Today I could notbe happier, as we are talking about one of my great literary loves of all time, Jane Austen.
If last week we told about a woman who lived all her love stories intensely, Alma Mahler, today we are talking about a woman who wrote intensely about love stories. But not only.
Because Jane Austen, through what are apparently novels about marrying and life as a “good wife”, actually told stories of strong, decisive, cunning, Machiavellian, complex women. And she did so over two hundred years ago.
On the occasion of the anniversary of her birth, we talk about her and her novels, which have given rise to numerous film transpositions that make her an extremely current icon even today. Obviously, looking forward to going to the Jane Austen Festival next September: janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk
Short biography of Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon Rectory.
She was the second daughter of Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra. In addition to her older sister, also called Cassandra, Jane had 6 siblings.
In 1783 Jane and her sister were sent to boarding school. While they were at school, they both got a fever (possibly typhus) and Jane nearly died. Jane Austen left school in 1786.
From childhood, Jane showed that she loved writing short stories, which were then collected in the Juvenilia collection. Around 1795 she wrote a novel, Elinor and Marianne. In the years 1796-97 Jane Austen wrote another novel which she called First Impressions, later published as Pride and Prejudice.
Later, in 1798-99, Jane wrote a novel called Susan. It was published posthumously as Northanger Abbey in 1817. In 1801 Austen moved with her sister and parents to Bath.
The following year she received a marriage proposal from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. Jane agreed at first, but quickly changed her mind. In fact, Jane never married (go girl!).
Jane Austen moved to Southampton in 1807, where she lived until 1809 then moved to the small village of Chawton in Hampshire.
In 1811, Sense and Sensibility was published. Pride and Prejudice came out two years later. Then, in 1814, Mansfield Park. Another book, Emma, followed in 1816. Meanwhile Jane Austen wrote Persuasion, but died before she could see the prints. It was published posthumously in 1817. Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral. To deepen her history in a pleasant way, we refer you to the film Becoming Jane (https://amzn.to/3oPBZeY)
And it is no coincidence that we refer you to a film … then you will understand everything!
Jane Austen’s popularity
According to statistics, Jane Austen is today the most recognized British literary figure after Shakespeare.
As we will see in the next paragraph, in the last thirty years there have been countless television adaptations, films, books and events dedicated to the English writer. But how come?
Today it seems strange that in an ultra-sexualized culture flooded with pornography, one is interested in the story of an exuberant but moral young woman falling in love with a man who is only apparently gruff, but then gentle. So why do Austen’s novels enjoy all this popularity?
One reason, of course, is that Jane Austen is a great writer: gifted, witty, ironic – and a master of detailed description. Her novels were not popular in her (short) life. But they had a following among contemporary and later writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, William Dean Howells and Katherine Mansfield, and became relatively popular in the late 19th century.
Appreciation (or at least awareness) for Austen’s skill also grew as she became a subject of study in college courses. The popularity of her novels, however, cannot be attributed to style alone. It is also due to the treatment of “universal themes” such as love, money, power, status, duty and honor.
But above all the pursuit of happiness, for which her characters are worried. Aren’t we all?
And, of course, another reason for Jane Austen’s popularity is nostalgia. Nostalgia for chivalry, the dignity of an earlier era and nostalgia also for the tradition of gender; not in the sense of “woman angel of the firepiece and working man”, but for the respect and courtesy that were given to women. So let’s discover together her novels and their best cinematographic adaptation, and let’s do it as in the film Jane Austen book club!
Novels (and best films) in Jane Austen Book Club
Given that Christmas is approaching and probably a few days with pajamas and blankets, what better opportunity to learn more about today’s protagonist and understand her popularity by watching films based on her books?
As mentioned earlier, in the film Jane Austen Book Club, the stories of the protagonists are intertwined “à la Jane” precisely by reading her novels, month after month, in a sort of meta-film. For this, vote 10! And now instead, we too, as in this film, talk about her novels and their best cinematographic transposition following the order proposed by the film.
Emma is a novel about youthful arrogance and romantic misunderstandings.
It is set in the fictional country village of Highbury and surrounding properties and involves the relationships between people of a small number of families.
Emma Woodhouse is a young woman who enjoys meddling in the affairs of others. She continually tries to unite men and women who are completely wrong for each other. Her latest “project” is Harriet Smith, an unassuming rookie, while Emma herself receives the attention of the fiery Frank Churchill.
However, Emma’s attempts to “play Cupid” cause more problems than solutions and ultimately risk jeopardizing her own chance for love and happiness. The novel ends with three marriages: Harriet and Mr. Martin, Jane and Frank, and Emma and Mr. Knightley. This latter marriage is celebrated as a happy union of equals (as we have said, status and money are very important themes in Austen’s novels).
Best film adaptation: Although this year’s version with “The Queen’s Gambit” Anya Taylor Joy, I vote for the 1996 version, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor. The film got 2 nominations and won a Oscar for the best soundtrack. At the US Box Office, Emma grossed 18 million dollars in the first 6 weeks of programming and 241 thousand dollars in the first weekend.
In this novel, a young girl named Fanny Price moves to live with her wealthy uncles, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park.
Intelligent, studious and a writer with an ironic imagination, she is particularly close to Edmund, the youngest son of Thomas. Fanny is gifted with beauty and a sharp mind and comes to the attention of a neighbor, Henry Crawford.
Thomas promotes this relationship between the two, but to his chagrin, Fanny thinks on her own, and asks Henry to prove himself worthy of her. As Edmund courts Henry’s sister and as the light shines on the link between Thomas’s fortunes and New World slavery, Fanny must evaluate Henry’s character and affirm her heart as well as her spirit.
Mansfield Park has become famous in recent decades as a critic of slavery, revealing the modernity of its author. Part of the plot depends on Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua to personally visit his plantation, run by slaves.
Best film adaptation: 1999’s Mansfield Park, with Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund. If you don’t remember who the actor is, just think of Trainspotting’s Sick Boy, a big difference in roles, right?
In this novel we meet Catherine Moreland, a seventeen-year-old girl who is invited on a trip to Bath with her wealthy neighbors, Mr and Mrs Allen. Catherine has never been away from home for a long time and is thrilled to see the famous tourist spot. Catherine is also obsessed with goth novels.
While in Bath, she meets two different families: the Thorpe family and the Tilney family. When she is at the abbey, due to her vivid imagination, Catherine begins to think about all sorts of mysteries that may have happened, even if, each time, her fanciful theories are denied by a very banal reality.
The girl begins a relationship with Henry Tilney and, after some vicissitudes and after learning that the real economic situation of the Morlands is not so bad, Henry’s father finally gives consent for their marriage.
Best film adaptation: There aren’t actually very many transpositions of this specific novel. We can mention an adaptation of Northanger Abbey with a screenplay by Andrew Davies, released on ITV on March 25, 2007 as part of their “Jane Austen Season”. This adaptation aired on PBS in the US as part of Masterpiece Classic’s “Complete Jane Austen” in January 2008. Cast: Felicity Jones is Catherine Morland and JJ Feild is Henry Tilney.
Pride and Prejudice
The novel follows the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy aristocratic landowner.
The two must overcome the sins of “pride and prejudice” to fall in love and get married. Obviously the story is not that simple because Elizabeth Bennet’s main strand develops together with that of her sisters.
Darcy’s instead is intertwined with that of his friend Bingley. The friendship between the two will jeopardize the relationship with Bennet until the inevitable happy ending with the marriage of two people belonging to different social classes.
Best film adaptation: Simple Answer, the 2006 film starring Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland and Tom Hollander. The film received 4 Academy Award nominations, 2 Golden Globes, 1 Critics Choice Award nominations. In Italy at the Box Office Pride and Prejudice grossed 4.2 million euros . (https://amzn.to/386vdea)
Sense and Sensibility
I’m biased here, I admit it’s my favorite! In this novel Jane Austen tells the story of the Dashwood family, focusing on the sisters Elinor and Marianne, personifications of reason (sense) and emotionality (sensibility) respectively.
The Dashwood family becomes destitute upon the death of their father, who leaves their home, Norland Park, to half-brother John. Family reunions up to happy final marriages will overturn the roles of the sisters. If at the beginning Elinor is the emblem of reason and Marianne of feeling, in the end the roles are reversed.
Best film adaptation: obviously the 1995 film directed by Ang Lee. We want to talk about the amazing cast with Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Robert Hardy? The film won the Golden Globe for Best Drama Film of 1995 and the Golden Bear at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Non-Original Screenplay. Why see it? For Hugh Grant in period clothing that do him too much justice: I think he was born in the wrong century! (https://amzn.to/3a8eJoc)
This is Austen’s latest novel, published posthumously.
The title refers to the persuasion that Anne Elliot undergoes until she refuses Captain Wentworth and that which the other characters in the novel undergo or refuse to undergo.
As Anne is confronted with thoughts of what might have been as she watches Wentworth courting her brother-in-law’s sister Louisa, an incident causes Wentworth to realize who he truly loves and follows Anne.
As in all the novels seen so far, even in the latter there are misunderstandings that keep the reader in suspense until the two lovers are reunited.
A curiosity is that the title of the novel was not chosen by the writer, who died before finishing her work. Many critics believe the novel’s title would have been The Elliotts.
Best film adaptation: here I choose the 1995 version. First of all for the cast, but above all for the cut given by the director, Roger Michell. The same director of Notting Hill, one of the most British films ever!
I think, after this excursus into the life and works of Jane Austen, there is not much to add except to immediately start a feast of films. And, please, before starting this film marathon, it is a duty to have a very English cup of tea! Cheers!