A personal statement, written in a moment of confidence to my closest friend? No...but it might as well have been. Actually, this line is taken from the popular 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Heard amid a montage of spoken emails between cyber-buddies Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), the confession comes from--you guessed it--Kathleen. As she raves about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, we see Joe holding a copy of the book, on the front of which appears a picture of the story’s two main characters. (In fact, the book is the companion edition to the BBC’s 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the characters on the cover are the actors who portrayed Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy--Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.) As he reads, Joe’s expression is one of mingled boredom and amazement--boredom in being forced to read this exceedingly dull book, and amazement that anyone (much less, the intelligent Kathleen) could become so enamored of such a silly, romantic, old-fashioned story. After taking a swig of beer, he begrudgingly picks up the book, rolls his eyes, and continues reading.
Two significant points emerge from this amusing film clip. First, the mere fact that Pride and Prejudice--an English novel written by a 21-year-old woman and published in 1813 during the Napoleonic wars--should appear in a Hollywood movie revolving around an email relationship in 1990s New York City is, frankly, astounding. True, many contemporary Americans have never even heard of Jane Austen, and my guess is that a majority of educated, English-speaking adults have never read Pride and Prejudice. Nevertheless, almost two centuries after its original publication, the book is still read and loved around the world--so much so, that the creators of You’ve Got Mail believed that a casual reference to its characters would be understood by the average American audience. The second noteworthy point to be drawn from this film excerpt is the assumption of a gender-specific reaction to Pride and Prejudice. The scene’s humor arises from the difference between Joe’s and Kathleen’s responses to the book. Of course Kathleen loves the book--she is, after all, a woman. Equally natural is Joe’s bored and amazed reaction; as a man, he is obviously unable to appreciate the novel’s value or identify with its characters. However, because some men do enjoy reading classic novels (Jane Austen included), the assumption that Pride and Prejudice is female reading material is clearly a stereotype--yet stereotypes are nearly always grounded in reality. In this case, how much is truth, and how much exaggeration?
The clip from You’ve Got Mail and the questions that it raises form the basis for the issues that I would like to address in this essay. Specifically, I want to explore the reasons for the “Jane Austen craze” that took place on film and in television during the 1990s. In particular, the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice elicited unparalleled excitement and enthusiasm in fans all over the world. I am admittedly one of those fans, and my reaction was probably the most enthusiastic of them all, stemming from a long-time personal love affair with Jane Austen’s novels. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was 11 years old; though frustrated by the complexity and abstruseness of the language (I even remember skipping over some of the “deeper” passages to get to the “good parts”), I absolutely fell in love with the story. I was enchanted by the beauty and grace of this faraway world, so different from the one in which I found myself. Moreover, I fell in love with the characters themselves. Although I was particularly drawn to the heroine (Elizabeth Bennet), I enjoyed laughing at Mr. Collins’s ridiculous and supercilious pretensions, scorning Lady Catherine’s coldhearted pomposity, and swooning over the supremely handsome (and supremely self-absorbed) Mr. Darcy. Three years after my first encounter with P&P, I had zealously read each of Austen’s other five novels; and by age 15, I was an utterly smitten Austen devotee. The best, however, was yet to come.
January 14, 1996--the day that I had been breathlessly anticipating for months, ever since I had learned that the Arts and Entertainment network was going to air an elaborate, three-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by the British Broadcasting Corporation. I could hardly contain my excitement, even as I wondered nervously if the series would be faithful to the book, if I would be pleased with the actors and their interpretations of the characters--in short, if I would be as enthralled with the movie as I had been with the novel. Finally, the long-awaited Sunday night arrived, and my family and I sat down to see what lay in store for us... Pure bliss. The moment the opening titles began rolling across the screen, and Carl Davis’s delightfully evocative music met my ears, I knew I was in for a rare treat, and my enjoyment only increased with each scene. Everything was perfect--the dialogue, the music, the actors, the costumes, the dancing, the sets, the landscapes. If I had overseen the entire production myself, I could hardly have been more pleased.
More importantly, from that time on I was possessed with a sincere desire to transport myself into those scenes--to become a part of the atmosphere that had so captivated me. I wanted to dance “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” with Mr. Darcy, to engage in a match of verbal sparring with Miss Bingley, to tour the elegant grounds of Pemberley in a chaise and four. I began to feel that I was misplaced in time, and that I should have been born into Jane Austen’s world, rather than my own. Admittedly, my reaction to this “life-changing” series did not surprise my friends, my family, or myself. As those who know me will readily testify, I have always had a penchant for the “old-fashioned” way of life, and I have always been addicted to classic literature. The two elements combined could not help but enchant and fascinate me. Yet my reaction to Pride and Prejudice was not unique--nor was it even confined to other classic-literature enthusiasts. What was termed “Darcymania” in the United Kingdom nearly swept the entire world, giving rise to the Jane Austen craze that would continue for the next couple of years--in 1995 and 1996 alone, six Austen adaptations appeared on film and in television. The sudden proliferation of these movies and their tremendous popularity around the world have led me to believe that some kind of cultural explanation is at the heart of the matter--an explanation much deeper than mere coincidence. Obviously, the film market of the 1990s was ripe for this particular kind of subject matter; my question is simply, “WHY?”
Consequently, the primary issue question that I will address in the following analysis is this: What are the reasons for the enthusiastic response of fans around the world to the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? In answering this question, I will draw on a variety of critical writings by social commentators who have observed this very phenomenon and likewise sought out an explanation. In addition, I will gain insight from interviews that I have conducted with those who have seen the film--a diverse group including both males and females, young and old, from locations as varied as Portland, Oregon, and Lisbon, Portugal. As my analysis will demonstrate, the Jane Austen craze points to a surprisingly widespread social mindset that has been developing in American society over the past few decades--a mindset that is peculiarly vulnerable to Austen’s unique appeal, and has thus given rise to a whole new generation of “Janeites.”
While the film industry’s interest in Austen may have seemed to emerge quite suddenly, other films had already opened the door to Hollywood’s commodification of fictional texts. When one thinks of “literary films,” the words “Merchant-Ivory” are perhaps the first that come to mind. The glossy, yet highly “serious” films of this famous production team (made up of Indian Ismail Merchant and American Jim Ivory) epitomized and popularized the genre of literary films. Their first adaptation, The Europeans, was based on the novel by Henry James and appeared in 1979--meticulously and intelligently adapted to the silver screen, it renewed the public’s respect for genteel fiction. A string of other adaptations followed, including A Room with a View (1986, based on the book by E.M. Forster), Howards End (1992, also based on an E.M. Forster novel), and The Remains of the Day (1993, based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro) (Brownstein 16).
In these films, Merchant and Ivory created a distinctive “look” and “feel” that would become their trademark. In her article “Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn,” Rachel Brownstein describes this style as follows--“the deliberate savoring of elegant faces and dresses and furnishings and colors and slants of light; the focus on manners and personal relationships and country houses and greenery; the clarity of speech and importance of dialogue” (16). All of these elements would be copied in the series of Jane Austen adaptations that followed close on the heels of the Merchant-Ivory films; indeed, the similarity was no accident. Douglas McGrath, director of the 1996 version of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, has said that Merchant and Ivory “sort of made [film versions of classic books] acceptable again, or--funnily enough--hip again” (qtd. in Masters). Lindsay Doran, producer of 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, also acknowledges the influence of Merchant-Ivory films, along with Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence--a lavish production with a huge budget and big-name Hollywood stars (Masters). In short, the formula for success was already created, and audiences had proven themselves eager for more. Film producers were quickly alerted to the potential goldmine awaiting them in Jane Austen’s novels, and all they had to do was hop onto the literary-film bandwagon.
Before audiences knew what was happening, they were caught up in the Jane Austen craze. It all started quite innocently in the summer of 1995 with Clueless, a frothy teen comedy starring Alicia Silverstone--although most of the teeny-bopper audience didn’t know it, they were being indoctrinated into the Austen universe. (Clueless was actually a modernized version of Emma, transplanted from Regency England to present-day California.) Back in Great Britain, a somber production of Persuasion by the BBC was released in the fall; though popular among its targeted audience of straight-laced literary enthusiasts, this art-house film would soon become a cult classic, along with all of the other Austen films then in the pipeline. The first authentic Hollywood version to get the green light was Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, released at the end of 1995. Thompson herself, a Merchant-Ivory veteran who had starred in both Howards End and The Remains of the Day, was at a loss to explain the sudden Austen enthusiasm--“I don’t know what happened. Five years ago, there wasn’t a sniff of Austen. And suddenly it’s everywhere” (qtd. in Masters).
In the meantime, genuine Austenmania had hit Great Britain with the BBC’s release of the six-hour Pride and Prejudice miniseries, which drew up to 11 million people for each weekly episode (thus becoming England’s highest-rated costume drama ever). In mid-January of 1996, the series aired in the U.S. on the A&E network and was watched in an astounding 3.7 million households (Kroll, par. 4; Parrill, par. 1). Also in 1996, two versions of Emma were released--a Hollywood production starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and a British ITV telefilm featuring Kate Beckinsale in the title role (like P&P, this version was broadcast in the U.S. on A&E) (Greenfield and Troost 188). The most recent (and, apparently, the last) of the Austen films was 1999’s Hollywood version of Mansfield Park--although a dramatic alteration of the original story, it introduced yet another of Austen’s novels to the movie-going public (Ansen). (To date, the only one of her six novels that has not been adapted for the cinema screen is Northanger Abbey--no doubt, a screenplay is currently in the works.) Without the help of a screen agent, Jane Austen was named among the top ten entertainers of 1995 by Entertainment Weekly--quite an accomplishment for a woman who published her novels anonymously, earned about 800 pounds from her writings, and described her method as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” (Tyler 238; Kroll, par. 4).
Perhaps the sudden success of these movies may be partly attributed to the “grooming” of audiences by Merchant-Ivory films, and partly to producers and writers who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In light of Americans’ fickleness with regard to entertainment and their tendency to get caught up in trends, such an explanation is entirely plausible. Yet the public’s response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic--a surprise even to the films’ producers, who had probably anticipated favorable but modest receptions, similar to those received by A Room with a View and Howards End. The fact that simplistic stories centered on courtship and marriage were outselling expensive action films laced with special effects was mind-boggling! As cultural critics observed this extraordinary phenomenon, they began to hypothesize about the existence of a deeper social explanation; their thought processes would lead them to some surprising revelations about modern American society.
While uncovering the writings of these cultural observers, I have noticed several common threads among the explanations that they offer. Since three broad reasons have emerged from this analysis, I will discuss each one in depth, along with the validating opinions that I have gathered through interviews with fans of P&P. Although these explanations--presented as universal generalizations about an international phenomenon--are necessarily suppositious and therefore unscientific, they are the result of thoughtful consideration about our culture and the psychological trends of our time. Moreover, since they have been suggested by a wide variety of respected social commentators, they represent the majority’s opinion and are thus the most authoritative evidence available on this topic.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason for the appeal of Pride and Prejudice (along with the popularity of other Austen films) is the timelessness of the story--indeed, the traditional test of literature’s value is its ability to stand the test of time. This great novel, which has never been out of print since its publication, has survived through the ages and continues to delight readers of successive generations. Why? Because it contains truths and principles that transcend time and never diminish in their relevance and profundity. As Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost observe in their introduction to Jane Austen in Hollywood, “Austen’s characters strike a perfect balance between recognizable types and individuals with complex motivations and idiosyncratic personalities. Readers and watchers identify with them and yet cannot fully predict their behaviors” (3). Common sense tells us that a film-watcher is invariably bored and annoyed by a story about unintelligible characters experiencing unbelievable emotions in an implausible world. At the same time, a film is equally tedious and uninspiring if the plot is entirely predictable and lacks any witty or touching moments of surprise. The power of the movies--the characteristic that has endeared them to Americans ever since The Jazz Singer was released in 1927--is their reflection of reality and sincere human emotion. In movie characters, we see mirror images of ourselves; and just as every person’s existence is full of twists and turns, the lives of these characters must be believable (and, therefore, unpredictable) if they are to touch our hearts. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s psychological progression--from impetuosity and quickly formed prejudice at the beginning of the film, to a more open and generous mind at the end--reflects some of our own weaknesses, as well as our power to overcome them. In her thoughts on Pride and Prejudice, one of the female Austen fans whom I interviewed (a 16-year-old from Portland, Oregon) commented on the novel’s universality: “Austen--like Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible--took recognizable situations and characters and used them to tell her story. That is why today we can revamp the story, and it still has the same mass appeal as it did in the nineteenth century—the stories use archetypes” (Ellie).
Moreover, the themes of P&P are as relevant to today’s society as they were when Austen made them the focus of her social satire almost two centuries ago. Greenfield and Troost also observe this similarity: “The concerns at the center of Austen’s plots--sex, romance, and money--are central concerns in our own era” (3). Emma Thompson has likewise noticed that Austen films are not simply period pieces; as she phrases it, “You don’t think people are still concerned with marriage, money, romance, finding a partner? Jane Austen is a genius who appeals to any generation” (qtd. in Kroll, par. 6). Another Austen fan whom I interviewed--a 30-year-old man from France--cited this very fact as one of the film’s primary attractions:
Even though the time setting might be totally different from ours, the aspirations of the characters are still the same as our 21st-century aspirations. Whatever our country or life conditions, we all dream of some sort of happiness that involves love, money, and (above all) personal fulfillment. In that respect, I think P&P is very much still in accordance with our time, and maybe more than it was in Jane Austen’s time. (Croucrouz)
The marriage theme of Pride and Prejudice is perhaps best summarized in the novel’s famous first sentence--“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (a line paraphrased by Elizabeth in the film’s opening scene) (Austen 3). While modern women pride themselves on their independence and self-sufficiency, marriage--and, to a greater extent, sex--is still the overriding concern of our cultural existence. As Suzanne Fields asks in her article “Losing It at the Movies with Jane Austen,” “Why else do we have the professional matchmakers, singles bars, dating services, and classified ads, all reflecting an overwhelming yearning for commitment?” So-called “old maids” are still castigated by society (if not openly, then behind their backs); and ordinarily focused, rational women are often driven to desperation and even depression in their constant hunt for men. Fields succinctly summarizes the essence of this theme--“the unaffected and absolute acknowledgment of the importance of marriage and a keen understanding of the universal, emotional, and economic underpinnings of that institution.” While Austen does not attempt to mask this importance, she makes it more palatable by consistently wrapping it in light satire and comic intelligence--as in the novel’s brilliant opening sentence. Thus, while reflecting one of history’s principal female concerns, the film mixes that theme into a delightful concoction of light-hearted, witty satire--as in the best of all comedies, reality is good-naturedly exaggerated and mocked.
A second (and many-faceted) appeal that has been suggested in a variety of commentaries is the escapism offered by Pride and Prejudice--as Greenfield and Troost describe it, “a reactionary escapism to a simpler time as it was lived by a comfortingly wealthy and leisurely class” (4). In today’s fast-paced, stressful world, we often dream wistfully of an era when life simply moved at a more relaxed pace, and existence was more than a brief blur of chaos and confusion. The 16-year-old female whom I interviewed reiterated this sentiment: “The time of manners evokes a nostalgia for a time when all people were relatively well-behaved, and all you had to do was worry about clothes and dances, and no one seemed to do any actual work” (Ellie). In a Time article titled “In Fact, We’re Dumbing Up,” Pico Iyer expresses this same feeling: “Perhaps, in an age of speed, there is a special appeal to slowness; and perhaps in a time of special effects, we long more than ever for classical stories that take us somewhere else." Because Pride and Prejudice is indeed a “classical story,” it also offers “an escape for which you do not have to park your brains at the door,” in the words of Elsa Solender, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America (qtd. in Tyler 246). Exasperated by the seeming emptiness of society, we crave a return to “something deeper, or less of the moment”--in other words, entertainment that requires us to think, and even allows us to enjoy the intellectual fulfillment of the experience (Iyer).
It seems that such an escape is particularly appealing to today’s liberated “career woman,” who has perhaps found that success comes at a price. As Elayne Rapping claims in her article for The Progressive, “The new world in which we liberated women can now easily negotiate power deals, break through barriers, and soar to the heights is actually less glamorous and more rocky than the hype would have us believe. And even those of us who make it...are not enjoying the serenity that Austen’s...heroines seemed always to achieve at journey’s end” (par. 14). As feminists have discovered, corporate success often demands the sacrifice of a stable and relaxing home life. As a result, says Princeton professor emeritus and Austen scholar Walton Litz, “the essential stability of [Austen’s] world is very appealing in an unstable decade” (qtd. in “Jane Austen”).
In addition, Austen’s heroines always seem to find the fulfillment of their deepest needs and desires--the universal cravings of womankind. Simply put, her stories invariably have happy endings. As Austen herself verbalized this tendency in the last chapter of Mansfield Park, “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 have done with all the rest” (Austen 336). Explaining why she loves Jane Austen, my 16-year-old interviewee told me, “She writes fairytales for adults... Everything has a happy ending, and all the characters get their just desserts” (Ellie). Indeed, the “smiles and sunshine” that characterize all of Austen’s conclusions are perhaps a key reason for the ease with which her books have been translated to film. As Will Manley observes, “There’s nothing Hollywood likes better than a happy ending, especially when love and marriage are at stake, and the current crop of directors has seized upon Austen’s happy endings with an abundance of enthusiasm.” Of course, a handful of critics have found the primness and propriety of Austen films utterly implausible, annoying, and even hypocritical. Referring to Janeites who “blather about a time when society was civil and language was refined to a farethee-well,” Susan Lee argues that “the bloviators are confusing politesse and refined language with merit and virtue.” Lee’s problem with Austen’s world is “the hypocrisy those good manners concealed”--especially among the upper classes, who were seemingly able to get away with backstabbing and betrayal as long as their dinner conversation sounded nice.
While I understand Lee’s point, I believe she has utterly missed Austen’s true intention--indeed, the most brilliant aspect of her writing. Yes, her books are full of pompous windbags (the two most prominent in Pride and Prejudice are Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the clergyman Mr. Collins); but the function of these characters is to expose (not to ignore) the hypocrisy of which Austen was such a keen observer. As Will Manley has expressed this technique, “Her real intention was to show that this orderly social structure often functioned as a mask to hide a soft underbelly of corruption and hypocrisy, and that the impeccable manners that prevailed in her society served not only as civil rules of conduct to govern interactions between men and women, but also as snobbish tools of the elite to reinforce a repressive class system.” Anyone who misses the irony and satire in Austen’s novels has failed to appreciate her genius as both a storyteller and a social critic. In the expressive words of English critic and historian George Saintsbury, “In Miss Austen there is, though a restrained and well-nuanced, an insatiable and ruthless delight in roasting and cutting up a fool” (qtd. in Tyler 5). The 30-year-old French man whom I interviewed echoed this sentiment: “I’ve always enjoyed people who are able and prone to laugh at themselves--that’s what I love most about the English, and I suppose that’s why I fell in love with Jane’s way of depicting her society” (Croucrouz). Moreover, Pride and Prejudice provides more examples of disastrous marriages than matches made in heaven. As Elsa Solender observes, “Whoever says Jane Austen’s novels end with ‘happily ever after’ has not read carefully of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice”--a mismatched union continually on display in the BBC adaptation (qtd. in Tyler 246).
While the primness of Austen’s world irritates a few of the films’ critics, it is one of the greatest attractions for fans of the “Austen culture.” The appeal is heightened by the sharp contrast between modern society and the social order on display in both the novels and their film adaptations. In today’s world--where “anything goes,” scandal and debauchery are relished as entertainment, and rules are only made to be broken--civility and decorum possess a fascinating charm. Even if we would not want to live under such a regimented code of behavior, we enjoy watching others conduct themselves with propriety and honor--in a sense, the observation of social structure gives us a feeling of stability in a very unstable world. As Greenfield and Troost observe, “In an era of tell-all biographies and talk shows that exploit that all-too-easy impulse for self-exposure, it is difficult not to yearn for some greater degree of reticence in society” (5). Will Manley elaborates on this sentiment:
Austen’s comedies of manners present a view of society where men and women were better behaved than they are today. People were more considerate of the feelings of others and expressed themselves with a greater sense of dignity, decency, diplomacy, and restraint. These are qualities that have grown rare in contemporary society, where it is fast becoming the national pastime to trash your fellow men and women on The Jerry Springer Show.
Moreover, while the social rules under which Austen’s characters live can be seen as constricting and oppressive--especially for women--the stories’ “happy endings” may be interpreted as a reward for upright behavior. As opposed to today’s world, in which “playing by the rules” is often mocked and ridiculed, Austen’s society actually encourages its inhabitants to practice morality and civility--and freely punishes those who do not. Elayne Rapping reiterates this theory in the following analysis: “Therein lies the appeal of these movies and books: the vision they offer of a world in which there were rules of conduct, rules of morality, rules of virtue and character. And once one mastered and followed those rules, one would--so the fairytale went--be rewarded with love, fulfillment, security, and peace of mind” (par. 8).
Indeed, conforming with society’s code of behavior is a prominent subtext in Pride and Prejudice--specifically, in the lives of Lydia Bennet (Elizabeth’s youngest sister) and George Wickham (a womanizing renegade who first seduces Mr. Darcy’s sister and then runs away with Lydia, to the disgrace of the entire Bennet family). In both the book and the BBC adaptation, the elopement of Lydia and Wickham is portrayed as a moral and social calamity--one that sullies the Bennet name and destroys Elizabeth’s chances of marrying a respectable man. As Elizabeth’s sister Jane observes in a scene from the film, “You and I…have been tainted by association... Our chances of making a good marriage have been materially damaged by Lydia’s disgrace.” In reply, Elizabeth states the case quite plainly: “The chances of any of us making a good marriage were never very great--and now, I should say, they are nonexistent” (Pride and Prejudice).
This reaction may seem exaggerated to modern viewers, who tend to view extramarital sex as a matter of course--or, at least, as a morally permissible action. Nevertheless, the social response to Lydia and Wickham’s elopement is a clear manifestation of the unambiguous rules that guide the lives of Austen’s characters. Because modern society lacks any comparable set of rules, the certainty and order that they provide are seen as a refreshing change from the norm--especially at a time when the corruption of American society has come under harsh fire from several quarters. In a New York Times editorial, Edward Rothstein discusses this phenomenon: “It is no accident that [Austen’s] novels’ finely detailed accounts of moral and social education should inspire such interest at a time when conservative criticism of American culture is increasingly concerned with failures in those areas.” Austen’s characters seem to prove that morality is both practical and possible, and that moral people can indeed find happiness and fulfillment.
One need only watch the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice to witness corroboration of this “Austenian” creed. Having proven their virtue and integrity, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (along with Jane and Mr. Bingley) are rewarded with a blissful marriage ceremony, after which they “ride off into the sunset” in each other’s arms (Pride and Prejudice). At the same time, Lydia and Wickham do not even attend the ceremony; instead, they have been banished to a remote corner of England, where they will forevermore hide in disgrace from society’s coldly disapproving eye. The simple message of these divergent destinies? “Good triumphs over evil, and righteousness is rewarded.”
Finally, the third reason for the widespread appeal of Pride and Prejudice (and other Austen films) helps to explain the disproportionately large number of females among fans of Jane Austen. This reason lies in the nature of Austen’s heroines--witty, keenly intelligent women who are respected and loved for the “liveliness of their minds.” In essence, they are among the first true “feminists” to appear in English literature. (Indeed, Jane Austen is often considered one of the groundbreaking feminist writers; ironically, she herself would probably have been astonished--though perhaps pleasantly so--by the appellation and the movement for which it stands.) While Austen’s stories are sometimes ridiculed as sentimental fairytales, a close examination of her heroines reveals that these women are far from mindless Cinderellas.
Elizabeth Bennet, in particular, is wonderfully sharp and quick-witted, with a keen mind that prides itself on detecting the hypocrisy in others’ actions. As Natalie Tyler comments in her book The Friendly Jane Austen, “Her wit and intelligence, as well as her ability to admit her mistakes and to stand up to the forces of tyranny, make her irresistible” (113). Indeed, her independence and free spirit particularly endear her to today’s women, who frequently cite her as one of literature’s greatest female role models. Tyler again observes this modern-day attraction to Elizabeth: “She is witty and vivacious and appeals to modern readers because she has enough daring and individuality to rebel slightly against her age’s ideal notion of the acquiescent, genteel, accomplished young lady” (136). The French man whom I interviewed spoke at length about Lizzy’s appeal to modern viewers--both men and women:
Lizzy is the nineteenth-century version of any modern woman who has a sense of humor, is smart, wants to succeed and earn some sort of independence, and yet still secretly hopes for the presence by her side of some admirable Prince Charming, who is able to protect her when she needs it, love her and tell her that he loves her, and respect her as a full-time and totally able human being. (Croucrouz)
Moreover, while Elizabeth is described as physically attractive, Mr. Darcy admires her primarily for her intelligence and spirit; indeed, her wit allows her to outshine the more beautiful women who surround her (Parrill, par. 12). To modern females, who claim equality with their male partners and want their men to cherish them for their inner beauty, this non-traditional love story is deeply satisfying. In the words of Suzanne Fields, Austen’s heroines “win the Cinderella stakes because they deserve Prince Charming as much as he deserves them.” Indeed, when the proud Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, she does not stop at regretfully declining his offer. Instead, she lashes out with a fiery rebuke of his shortcomings, making it perfectly clear that he is unworthy of her. As worded in the BBC adaptation, her refusal is particularly stinging:
You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. From the very beginning, your manners have impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever marry. (Pride and Prejudice)
Who can blame Darcy for falling in love with such a mind as that? While interviewing a 30-year-old woman who lives in Lisbon, Portugal, I found that she particularly admired Lizzy’s sauciness in interacting with the opposite sex: “I have always been a sucker for the story where ‘proud boy meets girl that doesn’t immediately fall at his feet like the others do.’ I think that Jane Austen is the original source of this kind of plot” (Reis). Echoing this sentiment, Tyler captures with succinct clarity the appeal of the novel’s captivating love story: “Austen does not make a Cinderella fairytale story for Elizabeth, because it is the flash of her intelligence, not her dancing shoes or her pretty face or the deus ex machina of a fairy godmother, that makes her worthy of his love. Darcy falls in love with a mind” (131-132).
Although these three reasons--the story’s timelessness and relevance to modern society, its escapism to a simpler world (in which a strict code of behavior and enforced social structure figure prominently), and the witty intelligence of Elizabeth Bennet--encapsulate the primary explanations of Pride and Prejudice’s widespread popularity, a few other points are worthy of mention. First, the film is visually attractive, with lavish period costumes, gorgeous architecture, lush English countryside, and graceful dances--in short, it is a “pretty costume drama” that intoxicates the eyes and encircles the senses with its elegance and charm. (This element of the film is clearly a direct product of the Merchant-Ivory films and their signature visual style.) Greenfield and Troost, commenting on the “nostalgia for an older English countryside” that is posited in an article by Elisabeth Ellington, remark on this visual appeal and its particular significance in contemporary society: “One might note…the revival of interest in both Georgian architecture (see any recent housing development) and high-waisted dresses (visit any Saks Fifth Avenue), additional features of this nostalgia” (4). Since many of today’s fashion and interior design trends are simply reproductions of the past, a fascination in the style and architecture of bygone days is only natural. Furthermore, since the film seldom presents the grittier side of life (excepting a few scattered scenes in the dark alleyways of London), the viewer is led to believe that the entire world in which these characters live is a perfect fairyland—nearly everything and everybody is well-groomed and pleasing to the eye. Commenting on “these lovely movies,” Elayne Rapping observes that they are “filled with elegantly appointed mansions and cottages, delightfully fitted and accessorized gowns, even for the less well-endowed (physically or financially)” (par. 9). In this hypothetical world, elegance and taste are simply natural byproducts of one’s upbringing (at least, for the cultured and sophisticated characters). Rather than being attained through years of precise work and careful study, beauty and grace simply fall into place with ease.
Finally, the film showcases in its fullest glory the lush grandeur of natural landscapes, taking advantage of on-location shooting to highlight the eternal charm of the English countryside. For Americans accustomed to the uproarious clamor of our high-tech, bustling cities, such a setting is idyllic—again, evocative of a dreamlike paradise. Will Manley descriptively captures the striking contrast between these two atmospheres:
Austen’s England as presented in these videos is...appealingly leafy... The cameramen have delighted in capturing the rural beauty of preindustrial nineteenth-century England. There are no noisy autobahns jutting rudely through the peaceful fields of grain, no power lawn mowers to interrupt the serenity of an afternoon of tea and croquet, no telephones, no motorcycles backfiring, no security systems blaring out false alarms, no beepers beeping, no TVs whining, no radios blaring, no security whizzing by, and no airplanes thundering above.
Manley proceeds to observe that the only exception to the tranquil silence of Austen’s world is talk--“To fill the chasm of silence, the characters don’t just converse; they chatter, chortle, gabble, prattle, patter, and babble. Even the men in these videos yak on and on. What planet are these articulate guys from? Certainly not Mars.” Manley’s commentary contains allusions to nearly every Austenian attraction I have already mentioned--the simplistic charm of her world, the intellectual substance of her characters, and the beauty of Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story (the observation on male eloquence is particularly important in explaining the film’s appeal to women, who invariably long for deeper, more frequent dialogue with their male companions). In sum, the film brings together a myriad of related elements that, when combined, form a perfect world and a perfect story. Who can be surprised that, after watching Pride and Prejudice, most men fall in love with Elizabeth--and most women simply want to be Elizabeth? After all, everyone wants to live in a perfect world.
The previous analysis is my own humble attempt to explain a social and cultural phenomenon that has been dissected and scrutinized ever since Jane Austen bequeathed the world her marvelous works of art. While the film craze on which this essay has focused did not begin until the previous decade, the world portrayed by Austen has always been a source of fascination to her readers. As our society grows further and further away from the cultural milieu that is reflected in Austen’s writing, the proof of her genius lies in the fact that readers (and movie-goers) are increasingly able, as time goes by, to immerse themselves in her secluded, simple, yet captivating world.
The reasons that I have presented for the appeal of Austen-inspired films are only a few of the legitimate hypotheses that might be submitted, and they are by no means the product of an unbiased perspective. After all, as a lifelong and ardent Janeite, I can hardly separate my own passionate opinions from the wider phenomenon that has taken place around the world. Nevertheless, even to those who detract from Austen’s relevance to modern society, the opinions presented here must be seen as the sincere testimony of “media users” whose lives have been touched by a powerful combination of media’s two most compelling tools--literature and film. No doubt, a majority of Austen’s detractors hold the view demonstrated by Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail--that her stories are sentimental, sugar-coated fairytales that serve as perfectly harmless, female reading material, but have no real intrinsic value. Others, like Susan Lee (whom I quoted earlier), might claim that the refined “politesse” that characterizes Austen’s writing was merely a deceptive front concealing a cultural atmosphere of backstabbing, social inequality, and hypocrisy. As I have attempted to prove, however, both of these arguments fail to consider the real intent of “Jane Austen, the social satirist”--a writer whose motives have been as often misunderstood as her novels have been adored. In answer to such misguided claims, two authors have used musical analogies to capture the essence of her art:
“Jane Austen is not an opera; she’s a string trio or quartet--clear and direct
--Nancy Pannier (qtd. in Tyler 4-5)
Indeed, owing to the extraordinary depth and insight with which she wrote and the light humor in which she masked her stinging social criticism, her works demand the reader’s full engrossment and dedication. At the same time, to those who would trouble themselves to unlock the delicate charm contained within the lines of her brilliant prose, the experience is a pure joy--and perhaps, as I have demonstrated through this analysis, not as far from our immediate grasp as we might think.
As much as I adore all of the films based on Austen’s novels (in particular, Pride and Prejudice), my even greater adoration of the books themselves cannot allow me to view the recent “Jane Austen craze” without a touch of bittersweet sadness. Yes, it is marvelous that Hollywood has enabled a whole new generation to discover for themselves the joy that is Jane Austen. At the same time, in the words of Will Manley, “It’s too bad that the Austen revival couldn’t have taken place the way Jane would have wanted it--the old-fashioned way, in a comfortable chair by a fire with a cup of tea and a pair of reading glasses.”
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.
__________. Mansfield Park. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.
Brownstein, Rachel M. “Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. 13-21.
Croucrouz, David. Personal interviews. Mar.-Apr. 2002.
Ellie. Personal interviews. Mar.-Apr. 2002.
Fields, Suzanne. “Losing It at the Movies with Jane Austen.” News World Communications 25 Mar. 1996: A48.
Greenfield, Sayre, and Linda Troost, ed. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Iyer, Pico. “In Fact, We’re Dumbing Up.” Time 24 May 1999: 100.
Kroll, Jack. “Jane Austen Does Lunch.” Newsweek 18 Dec. 1995: 35-40.
Lee, Susan. “A Tale of Two Movies.” Forbes 4 Nov. 1996: 391.
Manley, Will. “Jane’s Addiction.” Booklist 94.13 (1998): 1070.
Masters, Kim. “Austen Found: Hollywood Rediscovers the 19th-century Writer.” Washington Post 10 Dec. 1995: G01.
Parrill, Sue A. “Pride and Prejudice on A&E: Visions and Revisions.” Literature/Film Quarterly 27.2 (1999): 142-148.
Rapping, Elayne. “The Jane Austen Thing.” The Progressive 60.7 (1996): 37-38.
Reis, Alexandra. Personal interviews. Mar.-Apr. 2002.
Rothstein, Edward. “Jane Austen Meets Mr. Right.” New York Times 10 Dec. 1995: D1.
Tyler, Natalie. The Friendly Jane Austen: A Well-Mannered Introduction to a Lady of Sense and Sensibility. New York: Viking, 1999.
“Jane Austen.” People Weekly 25 Dec. 1995: 73.
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. BBC and A&E, 1995.
You’ve Got Mail. Dir. Nora Ephron. Perf. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Warner Brothers, 1998.