I was introduced to one of my favorite authors in a rather roundabout way, mostly thanks to Amy Heckerling. When I saw the movie Clueless as a teenager, it absolutely blew my mind to learn it was a modern adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. My mother and older sister were familiar with Emma and had smiled through the whole movie as they recognized the creative ways the original story had played out. All I knew was that Jane Austen was one of those old, old writers whose enormous books had, presumably, lots of long conversations between prim and proper characters and very little excitement. But knowing now that one of her books had inspired this wacky, very funny movie – well, I had to take a look at the original source.
So I read Emma. And loved it. It was very funny, a sort of dry, understated humor that poked fun at social conventions and the typical foibles of men and women. In spite of being set in a very narrow world, rather far from my own experience, the observations on human nature struck me as far more universal. It helped, I suppose, that I’d seen a modern version of it first. I was already inclined to like Emma in spite of her many flaws, to hope she would learn her lesson and become a better person, more deserving of Knightley, able to acknowledge her manipulations and mistakes. I giggled at the portrayals of quirky characters like the gentle hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, the chatterbox Miss Bates (entire pages filled with her rambling monologues! and she’s so sweetly unaware of it!) and the fawning Mr. Elton and the horribly perfect partner he eventually finds in Augusta Hawkins/Elton.
Well, then I just had to read all the Jane Austen I could get my hands on. I think it was Sense and Sensibility next, rapidly followed by Pride and Prejudice. We had a copy of the two of them in a single volume. I still remember the illustrations; Fanny Dashwood entering Norland to take it over from the other Dashwoods, Willoughby carrying an injured Marianne, a snooty Caroline Bingley talking to Lizzy, Lizzy arriving at the portrait of Mr. Darcy at Pemberley. I was a little impatient back then about finding out how the stories resolved, so I peeked at the endings. So surprised that Lizzy and Darcy ended up together! And Marianne and Colonel Brandon? Wasn’t he the old guy? Luckily, it didn’t ruin the stories. Finding out how it happened was still intriguing.
This was the mid-nineties, when for whatever reason Austen-mania was at a high. Lots of movie adaptations. I saw every one I could. The best had to be the five-hour Pride and Prejudice, because they hardly had to cut anything. I’d like five-hour adaptations for every one of my favorite books, please. Of course the original books were always better. There was Persuasion, with the swooniest letter ever from Captain Wentworth, and the wickedly satirical Northhanger Abbey. I read Mansfield Park last and found it, admittedly, less entertaining, but I very much appreciated the idea that Fanny owed Henry Crawford nothing; that just because he thought she would keep him good, she had no obligation to accept his offers. On the contrary, she deserves someone far better than a person who believes he’s incapable of being good without her.
All of Austen’s novels have interesting moral observations, though usually not preachy or dourly didactic. People sometimes turn up their noses at Austen, minimizing her as writing romance, “girly stuff.” First of all, this stigma against romance is unfair and frankly sexist, which I’ve ranted about before. There’s nothing wrong with a story about people falling in love. But it’s not even a valid complaint. There is so much more to her work than basic boy-meets-girl storylines. She was undeniably a feminist in the sense of someone who critiqued the nature of gender relations, as when Lizzy Bennet refuses to accept the role of “delicate female” that Mr. Collins tries to force on her. He convinces himself that her refusal to marry him is simply, in modern terms, playing hard to get, but for Lizzy there is nothing admirable in such behavior or in such a demeaning perception of women. And then there is the wonderful conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, as they debate whether men or women suffer more for love. She points out that he cannot use literary portrayals as evidence, because they were all mostly written by men!
Jane wasn’t a total revolutionary. Her stories implicitly enforce the class structures of Regency England, such as how it would have been egregious for an illegitimate child like Harriet Smith to marry anyone of class like Mr. Elton or Mr. Knightley. The marriages at the end of the books tend to keep with the status quo, class-wise. But there’s no reason to condemn Austen too heavily for that. She was a woman of her time and of her class. And within those parameters, she was an extraordinary women, a pioneer who paved the way for many, many other female authors. As for me personally, I owe a lot of my current appreciation of “old-fashioned” literature, my knowledge of Regency England and 18th-19th century customs, and my liking for compelling, varied female characters, to Jane Austen.