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Manners & Mannerisms: Jane Austen on Film

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After all, Austen’s major characters are mostly very wealthy and/or minor royalty, and they’re forever concealing their romantic passions in favor of solicitously calling on one another, courteously inquiring as to the health and welfare of each other’s intimates (“How’s your mother?”), nattering pleasantries and subjugating their own desires in favor of those of their “connexions.”

One may read Austen for a week and encounter no dialogue harsher than, “It was badly done, Emma — very badly done indeed.”

Fortunately, Virginia Newmyer is around to disabuse us of such notions.

She also pointed out that Austen’s books have been “continuously in print since the moment they were written 200 years ago. They have just grown in popularity. What other novelist of 200 years ago is so popular? I can’t think of one. Dickens was 150 years ago.”

Newmeyer will lecture at the Corcoran on Wednesday about the recent proliferation of feature films based on Jane Austen’s novels. Express enjoyed a long conversation with her about Ang Lee‘s “Sense and Sensibility,” the many “sequels” to Austen’s books that have appeared in recent years, “Clueless” and more.

She never asked about our mother.

» EXPRESS: Do you think that, overall, the film adaptations have done a good job at capturing Austen’s novels?
» NEWMYER: I can’t say that, because they started adapting “Pride and Prejudice” [practically] in silent films. They’re not all good. I’ve seen most of this stuff and I know the books quite well. I mean, Andrew Davies did the miniseries adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — that was absolutely wonderful — but he’s done some of these things that are on television this January that are not worthy of him or of Jane Austen.

I don’t insist on faithful adaptations. One of the best adaptations is Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of “Mansfield Park” and she turns it into a modern look at Jane Austen. “Mansfield Park” is the most problematic of Jane Austen’s books — of the good ones — and Rozema removed all the problems.

» EXPRESS: What’s your biggest criticism of the film adaptations?
» NEWMYER: My biggest criticism — and I would say this particularly of the Keira Knightly/Matthew McFadden “Pride and Prejudice” — is that Jane Austen is known for her wonderful, sparkling, witty, trenchant dialogue. And when you make a movie like that and you replace her dialogue with long silences, or with words that the adaptor has written — they’re just not good.

Jane Austen’s words are terrific. The best adaptations are not necessarily those that are most faithful to the story, but they are the ones that use her language.

» EXPRESS: What did you think of Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility”?
» NEWMYER: I loved it. Kate Winslet’s wig was the worst thing about it. Emma Thomson wrote the screenplay and Thomson is a very smart, very well-educated Englishwoman. And the collaboration between Emma Thomson and Ang Lee — I mean, he’s Taiwanese. How he got under the skin of Jane Austen and the novel is just remarkable to me. And I thought it was wonderfully well-cast and well-done.

One of the things that the adaptations do — the modern ones — is to celebrate England and Englishness. The adaptations are so beautiful. They are able to locate you in the place, at the time, with the characters in their costumes — without saying anything. And then, when they add to this wonderful beauty the words of Jane Austen, it’s like a hot-fudge sundae with caramel sauce on top of it. So, I’m enthusiastic.

» EXPRESS: They made me want to go to England.
» NEWMYER: Oh, my dear young man. When people ask me how many times I’ve been to England, I usually say I don’t know, because it’s true. While I was teaching at American University, I was lucky enough to be invited by the Smithsonian to go on trips to England as the study-leader — which means the lecturer —and I did probably a dozen study-tours on cruise ships circumnavigating England and Ireland. And most of the slides I use in my PowerPoint projection are pictures I took on these trips. And the slides are the most fun, when I talk about Austen and 18th century England, because so much of it still exists. So, if you ever go, I’m going to write an itinerary for you.

The other thing I’m doing with my writing and teaching partner Susan Willens is teaching a course at Politics & Prose called “Five Big Victorian Novels.” Each section meets once a month.

We did a Jane Austen course there last year and we both teach at American University. Susan teaches literature; I teach social history. We had lunch the other day and we were joking: All it takes is for somebody to mention something and we say, “Oh, I could teach that.” And it’s true. I have a background in British history and literature and in that background, you mention it, I teach it.

» EXPRESS: It seems that many of Austen’s books concern long-suffering saints surrounded by fools. Do you agree?
» NEWMYER: I don’t. I don’t think that her people are saints. Let’s take “Persuasion” and Anne Eliot, who is a very sympathetic, absolutely adorable and enchanting character and the closest [to a saint] — but she’s not a saint. We deplore when she’s made unhappy by circumstances, but she is responsible for those circumstances. She allowed herself to be persuaded by her mother’s friend, Lady Russell, to turn down Captain Wentworth.

» EXPRESS: Didn’t she just make a mistake?
» NEWMYER: Yeah, she made a mistake. She’s not a saint; she’s a person. I can’t see these people as saints.

I do think there are a lot of fools in Jane Austen’s novels, but one of the nice things about her fools are that they are presented so bewitchingly that you can’t hate them. They are figures of fun and you laugh at them.

» EXPRESS: In Austen’s books, it’s certainly implied that amid the great houses and upper-class families there are a lot of servants, but they’re not discussed. One thing I like about the movies is that the servants are shown and you can see just how many servants these people had.
» NEWMYER: I think the reason they were not discussed is exactly the same reason that [the characters’] clothing and what time they had dinner was not discussed: Austen’s contemporaries would have known. In Darcy’s household in “Pride and Prejudice,” there was probably something like 80 servants.

Servants were supposed to be invisible. If you look at an 18th century house plan, you will see that there are hallways, stairwells and cubbies for the servants to duck into, because they are not [supposed to be] visible. Doors were lined to keep the noises from the servants’ wing from passing into the realm of the master and his family.

The sequels to Jane Austen’s books that have arisen like crazy in the last few years — they’re all terrible. Anybody who likes Jane Austen wouldn’t like any of these.
One of the problems that shows the person who wrote this particular sequel knows nothing about the 18th century is that Darcy’s valet in [the sequel to] “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the main characters in the book and there is a ton of conversation between Darcy and his valet. That is so un-Jane Austen. I’ve read a few pages of most of them — enough to criticize them quite honestly.

» EXPRESS: I can’t let you go without asking you about “Clueless.”
» NEWMYER: I love “Clueless”! “Clueless” — which I always discuss when talking about Jane Austen and the movies — is so adorable and so funny. And people who have never read “Emma,” never read Austen, love “Clueless.” But people who have read “Emma” — I mean, didn’t you think it was wonderful?

» EXPRESS: Well, I saw “Clueless” about a decade before I read “Emma.”
» NEWMYER: Well, the village society of Highbury is transposed into the high school that Cher [Alicia Silverstone] goes to. The avuncular Mr. Knightley is now her slightly older step-brother, played by Paul Rudd. There are lots and lots of wonderful parallels. I just loved it. It’s an “Emma” for the late 20th century.

» Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; Wed., 7 p.m., $20; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West, Farragut North)

Written by Express contributor Tim Follos