Because no story about Jane Austen is complete without a knowing wink to her most famous line, we are compelled by Janeites to begin with this:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a historic city in possession of a large Federal period house with ample grounds must be in want of an outdoor film festival,” according to the women of Dumbarton House.
Not just any film festival, but one dedicated to the literary superstar of educated hopeless romantics and held at a 1799 home in Georgetown, where Austen’s American contemporaries swanned around in colonial splendor.
Which is why more than 200 people — about 190 women, of course, and maybe a dozen men — lined up on Q Street NW on Wednesday night for the second of three free Austen movies this summer.
“She’s the original romantic comedy,” explained Austen groupie Jessica Gallinaro, a soon-to-be lawyer who studied the British author in college. “Every trope in romantic movies was in Austen novels first.”
The idea for the festival was born five years ago, when Dumbarton House staffers were looking for new ways to attract visitors to the small museum. The brick estate was Dolley Madison’s first stop after she fled the White House in August 1814, during the British invasion of Washington, and was owned by a number of prominent families until the Colonial Dames of America purchased it in 1928.
Executive director Karen Daly overheard young staffers explaining the museum’s early 19th-century history by telling visitors: “Think about ‘Emma.’ Think about ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ That’s what this period is.” Minus the British accents, of course.
A light bulb went off, and the Jane Austen Film Festival, now in its fourth year, was born. “It has been an overwhelmingly female audience and a much younger audience than our traditional programming,” Daly said. “It’s been a great hit.”
The crowds have grown each year, and Daly expects an overflow audience for the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” starring Keira Knightley on July 29.
(Bar bet trivia: Justice Antonin Scalia mentioned “Pride and Prejudice” in what appears to be the book’s first U.S. Supreme Court citation in his Whitfield v. United States opinion earlier this year. Pay it forward.)
The crowd Wednesday included a few outdoor movie buffs and some casual Austen fans, but the majority were young women such as Tessica Venteicher, 30, who showed up last year for the “Pride and Prejudice” screening and was back now for “Emma.” Along for the ride: fiance Kevin Harber, who’s a good sport but not a true believer.
“The only one I’ve read is ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ ” he said. “Every time it got boring — balls, dresses — they would throw in some zombies or ninjas.” Thumbs up for zombies.
Venteicher, on the other hand, has read all of Austen’s books and seen most of the Austen adaptations. She’s a big fan of the BBC versions and Bollywood’s “Bride and Prejudice.” The Hollywood movies? Not so much, but Austen’s message always gets to her. “I relate to Austen the same way I relate to Mindy Kaling,” she said. “She makes me feel that I can screw up and make mistakes and still get my happy ending.”
But first, the happy beginning. The gates opened and there was a civilized rush for prime space on the North Lawn, a grassy oasis with a 16-by-9-foot inflatable screen at one end. Blankets were unfurled, picnics unpacked, wine uncorked. Lots and lots of wine to wash down the hummus and carrot sticks and Trader Joe’s Vegetable Root chips. And selfies, because Austen would totally Instagram if she were alive today. And don’t even start on all the Austen fan Twitter accounts.
One outlier: Cindy Shoffner, who’s not an Austen fan but loves outdoor movies. Her husband was out of town, her friends busy. So she brought a lawn chair and a copy of “Emma,” which she’d checked out of the library a couple of hours earlier because she couldn’t find any Cliffs Notes.
“I’m on Page 21,” she said cheerfully. Okay, she was skimming and asked for a quick recap: Smart girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy back. Which is pretty much every Austen book, minus the pithy quotes.
Latecomers streamed in, throwing blankets onto the brick walkways. Sarah and Matt Jensen sat down, leaning against the house. She looked excited. He looked . . . less excited.
“This week we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary,” he explained. Congrats! The actual date?
“The 15th . . . , ” he said.
“The 12th,” she corrected.
Anyway, Matt got to pick Ted’s Bulletin for dinner, and she picked this movie, which he has never seen but is one of her all-time favorites.
The 1996 version of “Emma” stars a fresh-faced Gwyneth Paltrow (pre-Oscar, pre-Goop, pre-uncoupling) before so many people decided that they hate her. But her turn as 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse has been derided as arch and mannered rather than charming and naive, a pale second to the vibrant “Clueless” released a year earlier.
According to diehard Janeites, “Clueless,” set in modern-day Beverly Hills, is a wittier and more nuanced adaptation of the novel. But Daly is sticking to the historical costume dramas for now — festival fans prefer the traditional flowing muslin and breeches, thank you very much. And she’s trying to raise money for the Ur-Austen broadcast: the six-hour BBC miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
Finally, dusk. There was a light wind, fireflies and an extremely well-behaved audience. So many great lines, which many in the crowd knew by heart. “Vanity working on a weak mind produces every kind of mischief,” Mr. Knightley scolded Emma. A wind gust lifted the screen, and the crowd huddled for warmth against the now-cool night. At the end of two hours, there was a long-awaited kiss and a wedding.
The women left happy. To paraphrase another famous line, Jane Austen movies are a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.
We asked the bridegroom, Matt Jensen: Thumbs up or thumbs down?
“Let’s see,” he said carefully. “I go into the second year of marriage with a greater insight into my wife’s mind.” Yeah, but did you like the movie?
“He loved it,” answered Sarah, turning to look at him. “You know you did.”