The opposite of sex
Why we're obsessed with Jane Austen and Regency-era romance
LIANNE GEORGE | August 13, 2007 |
Last year, there was no dodging Marie Antoinette. No sooner had Sophia Coppola's opulent biopic hit the screens than retailers began stocking their shelves with wallpaper, area rugs, wrap dresses, fountain pens and paper plates, all splattered with the ornate symmetry of Versailles.
This year, we've swapped one 18th-century feminine prototype for another, considerably less flamboyant, one. On Aug. 10, Becoming Jane, a film based very liberally on Jane Austen's early life -- starring Anne Hathaway as an implausibly sultry Jane -- opens across North America. In the fall, an adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler's novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, about six people who meet to discuss Austen's novels -- and find surprising parallels in the plots of their own lives -- will hit theatres. Masterpiece Theatre has announced it will air film versions of every Austen novel, in addition to a new drama based on the author's private letters.
When she's not appearing on screen, Austen is busily inspiring reams of new fiction. One theme is increasingly ubiquitous: contemporary women who, dissatisfied and over-worked, become obsessed with the cozy world Austen paints. For instance, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler, due this fall, is the tale of a modern-day woman "nursing a broken engagement with Jane Austen novels and Absolut" who wakes up one morning to find she is inhabiting the body of an upper-class maiden in Regency England. Similarly, the recently released Austenland, by Shannon Hale, is about a thirtysomething woman who harbours an obsession with Fitzwilliam Darcy(as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), and acts out her fantasies in an Austen-themed resort. Adding to the mix are Lost in Austen, an "interactive" choose-your-own-adventure in which the reader's mission is "to marry both prudently and for love" and Margaret C. Sullivans's The Jane Austen Handbook, which offers Austenophiles "step-by-step instructions to proper comportment" in the author's time.
When the first round of Austen-inspired romantic comedies -- Clueless and, later, Bridget Jones's Diary -- emerged in the mid-'90s, critics complained that the creators wrongly attributed to Austen a brand of klutzy romanticism. More recently, the journalist Rebecca Traister, writing for Salon about this latest explosion of books and films, suggests modern fans have wildly misinterpreted Austen's novels as boy-crazy and sentimental. "In the mad dash to find their Darcys," she writes, "some readers and fans have forgotten that Austen regarded mushy female infatuation as side-splittingly funny ... Her heroines are not so much breathless and overcome by their emotions as they are practical and genuine."
But it is precisely because Austen is not a romantic that her stories resonate today. She's a pragmatist, an economist. A stubborn adherence to arbitrary social rules has always been considered the defining characteristic of her work. And these days, when social life is more or less a free-for-all, what could be more appealing?
In the 19th century, Charlotte Brontë famously rejected Austen's work as lacking warmth, enthusiasm or anything heartfelt, sniffing, "She ruffles her reader with nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her." A modern Austen fan might argue there is enough in the world already to disturb a person, if that's what she wants.
Austen's England is the opposite of our messy, confessional culture, where everyone's lives and loves are posted on Facebook for all to peruse. Her works conjure -- rightly or not -- some quaint, if unrealistic notion of dignity and restraint. The entire universe of an Austen novel often consists of three or four families in a village, left to sort out their lives between them. There are only so many possible configurations. Emotion figures into it, of course, but it always gives way to rationality, propriety and social norms.
Which isn't to say the current fascination with all things Austen is not about romance. But it is a functional, grown-up kind of romance. Courtship in Austen's day had weight and carried real consequences in a way that it doesn't today. Readers are well aware of Austen's mistrust(even horror)of unbridled passion. One misstep and a woman winds up destitute and unloved, a social pariah. Today, by comparison, nothing seems to have weight. Dating, co-habitation, marriage -- everything's undoable. It's a hard-won freedom that does have its downside.