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Jane Austen: A Love Story

For England's 228-Year-Old Novelist, the Ink Has Yet to Dry

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page D01

"What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?"

-- Joseph Conrad to H.G. Wells in 1901, as recounted in the current novel "The Jane Austen Book Club," by Karen Joy Fowler.

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We live in a Jane Austen universe. A book about a book club that reads only Jane Austen is firmly entrenched on our bestseller lists. Keira Knightley -- one of Hollywood's reigning "It" girls -- is filming the role of Elizabeth Bennet for yet another version of "Pride and Prejudice," expected to be in theaters next year. Meanwhile Elizabeth and her beloved Mr. Darcy are living out the married chapter of their lives in the pages of "Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues" at the local bookstore.

We can buy "Pride and Prejudice," the board game. We can buy Jane Austen paper dolls at the gift shop in the DAR museum. Jane Austen, the sleuth, has her own line of mystery novels.

People magazine has declared us to be living in "a Jane Austen moment."

It would appear the mag is right: Even the Mormons are hooked on Jane. Hop onto the Internet, and you can order the video "Pride & Prejudice," a Latter-day Saints version in which two young Mormons try to navigate their way through a modern-day courtship without sacrificing their morals.

Austen, it appears, is our new Shakespeare. In pop culture terms, that is. Two hundred years after her novels were written, she's ascended to that level where her work is widely imitated, flippantly quoted, frequently ripped off and, yes, very much revered -- by those who have actually read her, that is. Cite Jane these days and it's like playing a smart card. Remember how puffed up you felt the first time you quoted from "Hamlet" by heart?

"There's always been a need in people to have something that cues smart, or well-read," says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in the study of popular culture. "It tends to be Shakespeare. It's something that is immediately read as 'I'm smart, I'm well-informed,' which is usually done to play against expectations. As in, I may be a flighty blonde, but I can recognize a Rembrandt."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the large chain bookstores, where "chick lit" tables are smothered with volumes that boast pastel covers and an Austen reference somewhere within (or even in a blurb on the back). Austen, it's been suggested, is the great-great-grandmother of "chick lit" -- that exploding genre about upwardly mobile young women and their wayward travails through the world of modern courtship (and modern-day shopping), mostly set in the best neighborhoods in London or New York.

Hmmmm. That does sound suspiciously like Austen: privileged women, privileged environs, an obsession with material wealth and class distinctions, and, always, the underlying mating dance.

But before we go too far here, let us now state, upfront, that if Ms. Austen ever got her otherworldly self a copy of "Confessions of a Shopaholic" (wildly popular chick lit by Brit Sophie Kinsella), she wouldn't necessarily consider it a tribute. Her heroines may have their flaws -- their prides and their prejudices. In the world of chick-lit bestsellers, however, lack of geographical intelligence, financial prudence and some basic common sense seem to be common afflictions. Elinor Dashwood, they're not (that's "Sense and Sensibility," oh ye uninitiated). Call it Jane Austen Lite.

"If Jane Austen and Candace Bushnell were to meet for a long drink in a downtown bar, the delightful result might be a contemporary comedy of manners with a decidedly old-fashioned feel. Darcy Cosper has given us just that: a sweet and sharply funny concoction that will have bridesmaids everywhere nodding their heads in recognition."

-- Blurb on the back cover of "Wedding Season,"

a current novel by Darcy Cosper.

"The references to Austen that any of us make are a way to try and say a book that concerns young women and courtship needn't be idiotic," says Cosper, 34. "But I definitely think we take Jane Austen's name in vain."

Cosper, a smart and serious Austen reader, set out to write an entirely different story than the traditional "marriage plot" -- she wanted to subvert chick lit (she hates that term) and all the importance it places on getting The Man. In her novel, the heroine rejects the right guy in the end because he demands all or nothing -- and she has decided that marriage just isn't for her.

The book can now be found on chick lit tables nationwide. The comparison, it appears, is unavoidable. All things about young single women are now mercilessly filtered through the Austen lens.

Which leads us to ask: Where did all this come from? What suddenly, unexpectedly, made Austen so unbearably hip?

It's easy to point to British author Helen Fielding and the wildly popular "Bridget Jones's Diary," a book that openly riffs on "Pride and Prejudice," right down to The Man bearing the name Mark Darcy. (The real Darcy, we note for those who have not been reading along, was a Fitzwilliam.) And though the Bridget Jones books (there are two) are responsible for much of the ensuing chick-lit spawn, they were predated by another Austen-themed pop culture onslaught.

Give some credit to the movies, says Michael Gamer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who last year started teaching a class about Austen and her translation to other media.

"It's really only been in the last decade or so that Austen has become a truly popular novelist that everyone reads and knows about," Gamer says. "Something happens when you put Austen on the screen or when you repackage Austen for a film audience. It transforms the novels."

Give some credit -- in a small, but significant, way -- to Colin Firth.

"We all fell silent then, watching Colin Firth emerging from the lake dripping wet, in the see-through white shirt. Mmm. Mmmm."

-- Bridget Jones in "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,"

commenting on Firth's appearance in the

1996 BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice."

In the beginning, no one read Austen. Actually, no one published her. It took years -- she started writing in the late 1700s and was not published until 1811, when "Sense and Sensibility" was first printed. Even then, it was released anonymously, as were all her works at first. Austen's rise to respectability was slow, but her supporters were fervent, and persuasive. She became a part of the canon, taught in our English literature courses in college, or, for the more ambitious, in high school. She was classified as a romantic, albeit a radical one.

Virginia Woolf compared Austen to Shakespeare in 1913; it would take much longer before her name had some of that Shakespearian currency, before it reached the shorthand it carries now on DVD cases and book jackets ("Fans of Jane Austen will love blah blah blah . . . "). For Shakespeare, Gamer posits, the renaissance came with the Stratford Jubilee in 1769, some 200 years after his birth. He dates the beginnings of the Austen transformation to a World War II-era renewal of interest in her work (Hollywood made a version of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in 1940). But, in popular culture terms, the big turning point came with the onslaught of films near the end of the 20th century, he says.

The Brits rediscovered Austen first; most of her novels were made into films or miniseries in England in the 1980s. In 1995, Hollywood -- in the form of actress Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee -- brought Austen vividly to life in "Sense and Sensibility"; "Persuasion" was made into a film that same year.

Then came Firth. His appearance as Mr. Darcy in the 1996 BBC version of "Pride" -- which would later air on A&E in America -- was a phenomenon. Women bought the video, played it -- as do Bridget and her friends in the novel -- again and again. Mr. Darcy became the prototype for The Man. Firth became Mr. Darcy. Austen's popularity grew.

In 1996, perky blonde Alicia Silverstone played an Emma-like character in the fun, sharp "Clueless," by Amy Heckerling. Interestingly, the film was not overtly advertised -- initially -- to be an updated version of "Emma," though Austen-read reviewers clearly caught on. Thompson refers to "Clueless" as "entry-level Jane Austen." Girls who had previously never heard of the author now throw out Austen references as a result. A year later, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in "Emma." "Mansfield Park," another one of Austen's six novels, made it on screen in 1999. Only "Northanger Abbey" has yet to be claimed by Hollywood (though there is a British film of the novel).

Audiences took the movies for the romance, yes, but Austen also appeals and resonates -- as Martin Amis pointed out in a New Yorker article in 1996 -- because of her sharp rendering of class and class distinctions. Modern-day life may not be overtly stratified the way it was in Regency England, but sense of status and place is still an essential underpinning, even here in Horatio Alger America. Witness the wild success of the thinly written "Nanny Diaries" and "The Devil Wears Prada," two novels that expose the excesses and obnoxiousness of America's reigning class through the gaze of what is, essentially, the servant.

"There's a host of reasons 'Why Austen? Why now?' and they're all speculative," Gamer says. "It's a complicated question."

One answer comes from someone who is only an Austen expert in that she has read all of Jane's works countless times. A Yahoo! movie critic and editor of a corporate governance Web site, Nell Minow of McLean, has Austen's novels loaded on her PDA, and is continually reading them in rotation.

"Austen," Minow says, "has a stunningly modern sensibility. And it took the rest of the world a couple centuries to catch up with her."

"For those of us who suspect all the mysteries of life are contained in the microcosm of family, that personal relationships prefigure all else, the work of Jane Austen is the Rosetta stone of literature."

-- Anna Quindlen, in an introduction to "Pride and Prejudice."

To categorize Austen as simply a writer of romantic fiction is foolish. Austen is cynical where most romance is hopeful; her characters are often deeply flawed. Her world may be, on the surface, one of cottages and vast lawns and graceful flowers, but it is really an interior world, one she renders, unsparingly, with a masterful level of social observation.

"I think that there's a perception that Jane Austen's novels are all about romance and the plight of the single woman, and they end in marriage, and that's the whole story," says Juliette Wells. Wells teaches a course on Austen at Manhattanville College and is currently writing an essay about chick lit to be included in a book on the subject. The essay is her attempt to figure out what Austen and chick lit really have to do with each other. She is finding, as many of her colleagues have, that it is a difficult subject.

"I feel that it's a misreading of Austen to see her as the writer of cultivated romance who leads down through the years to this chick lit phenomenon," Wells says, "but, in another sense, that's fair."

What Austen did, Gamer explains, is "adopt traditional relationships of romance into a more radical framework." Her novels keenly observe, and strongly critique, a time in which economic circumstances and rigid class restrictions limited women's choices. In the end, the only real choice was marriage, hence the sardonic version of the traditional marriage plot, with the heroine swiftly married off in the final pages.

"One of the things that is appealing about the novels is that they get at the predicament young heterosexual women face when they live in an age that frankly penalizes any real radical behavior," Gamer says. "So her heroines are, for the most part, smart women who are often compelled to spit tacks at the folly around them, but don't really have a lot of options except to change from within."

In the many different types of novels -- some literary, some little more than a dressed-up pulp romance, some straddling the divide -- that are swept into the now-cavernous category of chick lit, the marriage plot is alive and well. It stars, generally, women who seem trapped in the same materialistic, class-restricted, marriage-desirable world as Austen's women were, even though they now have hip jobs and their own apartments and credit cards with absurdly high limits.

In this world, all the shopping for the right Prada bag and the perfect sample-sale slip dress is the modern-day way of trying to establish class and worth in the right Manhattan zip code. Look the part, and you can prove to Mr. Darcy -- that man who seems just wee bit out of reach -- that you really are in the same league, after all.

But what's usually lost in the reinvention is Austen's ability to resolve a courtship filled with excitement and witty repartee into a union that seems less a marriage than a merging of two well-matched minds. As Minow points out, Elizabeth enlightens her Darcy and vice versa, and the same goes for Emma and her Mr. Knightley. But when Bridget gets her Mr. Darcy or "Shopaholic's" Becky Bloomwood lands her Luke Brandon (well-off, attractive, solid, in a serious financial-sector job), it comes because the men love them despite all their foolishness and frippery. It is a love of acceptance, and, in some ways, even salvation. After all, it frees them from having to really be dependent on their seemingly not-so-compelling careers.

"They seem to be pretty bleak and dystopic about the workplace and what it offers to women, which seems to me right on the money," Gamer says of chick lit. "But instead of thinking maybe the workforce should be transformed, they end up pitching a fantasy outlet of marriage. So Bridget ends up working as a part-time consultant from home or something like that."

If these books were all just an extension of the standard Disney princess fairy tales -- if the marketing teams labeled them "Cinderella" fables -- they could easily be dismissed as just more romantic fantasy in a long line littered with Harlequin romances and Nora Roberts novels. But that's not how they're packaged -- these days, they're marketed as Austen's literary progeny. And given Austen's reputation for realism in the guise of romance, that poses the million-dollar question: Is this really what modern-day women want their lives to be?

"It's sort of pompous of me to say anything," Cosper says, "but I came to it thinking, 'How can this be what the women of my generation want to read? How can this be what the women of my generation are writing?' I admit I was confused and disappointed by it. And I was confused and disappointed by the connections to Austen, because, in fact, she's such a subversive writer."

Wells struggles with the same question. What she and Gamer hope now, though, is that the young women of the chick lit generation will actually read the real Austen. That there will be a new age of enlightenment.

Most of Wells's students, she admits, come to class with rudimentary knowledge of "Emma," rooted in many video replayings of "Clueless." But they quickly take to the real Jane. At Penn, where English 101 was traditionally a Shakespeare course, Gamer's section that substituted Austen outdrew the class on the Bard last year. His students, he said, ended up doing some brilliant work.

So maybe, just maybe, Austen will end up being both famous and better known.

"It's funny," Minow says, "in one of the versions of the books that I have, there's a very sweet thing written by [Austen's] brother in the appendix after her death. He says, 'We miss her very much, and we think someday she's going to be as famous as -- '

"And then," Minow continues, "he lists three authors you've never heard of."

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