Don't go away mad, just go away!
Let me just say up front that I'm not in favor of burning books. But if
in the near future some aliens were to come to Earth and take over the
planet and for some reason decide to make me their choice for the Lord
Emperor of the World and I had ultimate power to do anything, well I
have to say that it would at least cross my mind to order all of Austen's
books taken out and put onto the bonfires. I wouldn't of course, but I'd
think about it. What really gets me is that they seem just to make movie
upon movie out of her stuff.
Jane Austen wrote eight novels. These have generated 43 movies and TV
series since 1940. But it is the recent Austen binge which is the real
question mark here. Since 2000 there have been 11 television or movie
productions based on her works, with another 2 in production.
What is it that people see in this stuff? Austen's world is basically
the world of the landed British aristocracy, which really hasn't existed
for over a hundred years in the form that Austen portrays it. Even more
of a puzzle is that even in her own day her books weren't very popular.
They didn't get popular until later, when the Colonial empire was
slipping away and people read them as nostalgia. But that really doesn't
explain why a lot of people today like them. The average American or
Brit these days doesn't have anything in common with Austen's world. And
even if you take into consideration the ability of a good novel to portray
a kind of universal experience, that doesn't explain why they keep doing
these books over and over and over again.
Now I know, nobody is forcing me to watch all that Jane Austen anyway.
So why does it concern me? Well, I suppose it's because in devoting all
those resources to the Austen works they are passing up a lot of other
really good stuff that hasn't been used yet. There is Mary Wollstonecraft
Shelley, for example. Shelley wrote a good number of novels, and to the
best of my knowledge only one of her books, Frankenstein, has ever
been adapted into a movie. There is also a whole library wing full of 19th
century gothic fiction which has barely been tapped.
There is one thing I do like about watching the Austen-period "corset-
dramas," though this really has nothing to do with Austen. People wrote
letters to each other back then. Not having telephones or cell phones,
and not having e-mail or text messaging capacity, people would actually
sit down at a desk and take out some paper and a pen and write letters
to each other. They knew back then that letters weren't any good for
communicating things quickly — for things like emergencies you just
had to hope that old rich Uncle Albert hadn't been buried by the time
the relatives all got their letters about his death. But what it did
do was to let people think in terms of breadth in life — not of days,
but of weeks, months. There is a kind of philosophical space to the
letter which is much more broad than more modern forms of communication
of the kind that you can just whip out in a manner of minutes. Letters
challenge you to go inward a bit more, to think more about what you truly
want to say, to think perhaps a little more about the person you are saying
As for Austen, enough already. Do something different. Because to be
honest, I think the gothic genre of ghosts and vampires fits much better
into our current world than endless stories about rich people marrying
off their daughters.
SOME FUN WITH JANE AUSTEN
"And what are we to do with that awful Mr. Beanbridge?" Mother said. "He
does seem to be so terribly adamant on courting our dear Catherine. And
I simply cannot think of a polite and civilized manner to send him away."
"Why don't we shoot him?" said Mary.
"Yes, let's shoot him!" Catherine agreed, putting down her needlepoint.
"Father, you have that dreadful shotgun of yours, do you not? You could
just shoot him the next time he makes us a visit."
"Now, girls" Mother said. "You know your father's eyesight is, how should
I put this, not as good as it once was. I really do not think he needs to be
picking up that awful shotgun again! Why, who knows who he might end up
"Then I will shoot him!" Mary cried.
"Now Mary, I do appreciate the thought" said Catherine. "But he is, after all,
my suitor. I think it should more properly be me who shoots Mr. Beanbridge."
"No, I will shoot him!" Mary cried, bouncing up and down on the divan.
"I will, I will shoot him!"