My friends would call me a hypocrite if I didn’t write about Austen in this challenge. After all, I did get a bunch of us to form a book club in her honor… initially. We’ve since moved on to other books. 🙂
But yes, Jane Austen remains an important figure in my life. It was one of her stories that got me hooked on the classics. A childhood friend once gave me a children’s comic version of Pride and Prejudice and Captains Courageous. Of course, being the romantic that I am, chucked Cheyne’s story and delved right into Darcy’s. I mean Lizzie’s.
After that, I got my hands on Persuasion and then Sense and Sensibility. I remember reading Persuasion back in 6th grade and ending up being confused about what happened. Sense and Sensibility was a different story. I didn’t know about shipping back then, but I shipped Elinor and Col. Brandon hard that first time I read it. And THEN I saw the movie with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson and everything made sense (but I still shipped them both).
It wasn’t until college that I finally got my hands on a copy of Emma, but she annoyed the hell out of me with her meddling, so I dropped it, picking up where I left off years later when we finally started the book club. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey I didn’t bother with because reading the summaries at the backs of the books already made me yawn. I got copies of the BBC movies, so I consumed those instead.
Thanks to the book club, though, I was forced to read all six of Austen’s novels, which was a good thing because the stories made more sense to me the second time around and not just because I had a better grasp of Austen’s language; it was because the struggles of each of the characters became more understandable and relevant. Italo Calvino says it best in Why Read the Classics?
In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, owing to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if the book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.
The complexities of societal norms and expectations regarding love and marriage and children especially of a culture so different from my own were a mystery to my 12-year old inexperienced-in-life self, but facing them again at a more mature age allowed me the opportunity to really get to know the characters and therefore appreciate their stories more.
Austen is known for her irony and her wit, but all I could see was how well she was able to reach women from this day and age and still have them sighing and crying and gushing over her characters. Of course, the ladies loved Fitzwilliam Darcy and his grand gestures of love for Elizabeth Bennet (but some say Austen ruined men for the ladies. In any case, Austen’s characters connected with the readers whether they were doing something grand like Darcy or Col. Brandon or Henry Crawford (whom I wanted Fanny to end up with), or something simple and subtle like Wentworth noticing how tired Anne was and suggesting she ride with his sister instead of walking. In everything that Austen’s male characters did, there was romance. And in everything that her heroines did, there was courage.
Her stories, most especially P&P, have spawned so many adaptations and retellings, the most recent of which might be Hank Green and Bernie Su’s production of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (YouTube). Before that, there were Bride and Prejudice (P&P Bollywood style), Lost in Austen and Pride & Prejudice (2005 with Keira Knightley) among many others. Adaptations for other Austen novels include Emma (two versions: Gwyneth Paltrow and that Underworld girl) and Clueless (Alicia Silverstone); Sense and Sensibility (with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) and From Prada to Nada (Camilla Belle and Alexa Vega); Persuasion (two versions: Ciaran Hinds and Rupert Penry-Jones as Capt. Wentworth); Mansfield Park (loved the version with Frances O’Connor) and Northanger Abbey with TV movies.
Aside from Shakespeare, Austen’s the only other classical author I know whose works have continued to make such a huge impact on the modern age that they’ve spawned countless versions across all types of media. I love her; that’s all I really wanted to say.