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The opposite of sex
Why we're obsessed with Jane Austen and Regency-era romance
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 Brontė 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.
"Being a woman, especially a single woman in the contemporary world can be quite confusing," says Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. "There are no rules. Who's supposed to pay? What do sex and dating and monogamy mean? Looking back and putting our own modern nostalgic construction on Jane Austen's world, the rules were very clear, and I think people long for that." It's that yearning for predictability and a social template that draws fans into Austen's world -- a place where two people plus one interaction equals one set outcome. This is also why, among her true devotees, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, faithful to text, was so beloved and why the dreamy 2005 version starring Keira Knightly was derisively labelled "Brontėfied."
Austenmania is likely also another response to the current cultural environment in which femininity and feminism remain at loggerheads. Admirers of Marie Antoinette -- a living doll with more exquisite jewels, shoes, and petits fours than any person could reasonably desire -- attempted to reclaim coquetry and material binges (raunch culture with money and taste). Through Austen, they express the desire to lose themselves in the cozy confines of 18th-century British propriety, replete with an elaborate set of rules to be corseted by. It is, as author Wendy Shalit called it, the "girls gone mild" phenomenon.
Of course, no woman in her right mind would actually trade 21st-century life for the Regency era, where women of leisure spent their lives promenading round the shrubbery and torturing the pianoforte (although some days, would that be so bad?). Still, there's an element of this life that speaks to something many people now long for -- something slow. "The pace certainly appeals for good reason," says Devoney Looser, an Austen scholar and professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "There is something that just seems very peaceful and calm about the way that these women of leisure live. Most of us don't have a governess or a scullery maid."
Of course, most people back then didn't have a governess or a scullery maid either. Whether or not we know it, when we fetishize Austen, we're also fetishizing the freedom to not worry about money matters. In her book Confessions, Rigler's protagonist, upon finding herself in the boudoir of a Regency-era lady of leisure, muses to herself about the lifestyle: "I can't begin to count the times I've agonized over my chequebook and wished I didn't have to decide which was more important, paying the electric bill on time or buying groceries, although sometimes I did neither and had my highlights done instead. It's unlikely that a person with a bedroom like this and a well-stocked jewellery box ever has to prioritize such things."
Women in our times may be especially susceptible to this kind of wistfulness. Thankfully -- praise Mary Wollstonecroft! -- women are no longer reliant on fathers or husbands for income. We can buy our own finery. However, a certain regressive discomfort with personal finance is more common among women than most would care to admit. This is the "white knight" fantasy Liz Perle writes about in her book Money: A Memoir, for which she interviewed hundreds of women about their most shameful secret fantasies pertaining to love and cash -- the most common being the wish that someone or something will come along and just take care of it. "Insistent feminist that I was (and remain)," she writes, "I still wanted the option of knowing that I, alone, would not have to be the steward of my financial destiny."
In the end, we reconcile the dilemmas Austen fantasies pose by bastardizing her work a little, cherry-picking from it. We hearken back to a Hollywood-reimagined time that never was and invest her heroines with more self-determinative power than they actually had. "It's a way-we-never-were sort of fantasy," says Looser. In a famous 1940 essay on Austen's work called "Regulated Hatred," the critic D.W. Harding wrote that it's these licences that Austen fans are prone to take with her work that she would have loathed the most. He writes: "her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine." Today, this translates into a bunch of flighty Lydia Bennets looking to imagine for a few hours that they could be a little more self-possessed, like their big sister Elizabeth.