Austen’s power: Jane addiction sweeps theaters, bookstores
By Carol Memmott and Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
Plain Jane is suddenly a babe.
There’s no denying that Jane Austen, brilliant early-19th-century spinster novelist, is Paris-Hilton hot, circa 2007.
She’s a smash in bookstores, nearly 200 years after her death. She’s a favorite of filmmakers, with five admired adaptations of her novels in the past 12 years and two new Austen-related films due in theaters in the coming weeks.
And in what may be the ultimate Hollywood makeover, she’s the romantic lead in Becoming Jane, a fictionalized biopic that opens Friday in 10 cities and expands nationwide next week.
Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) plays Austen as a comely 20-year-old who shares (improbable) passionate kisses with a dashing Irishman, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).
“I’m a huge fan,” Hathaway, 24, says of Austen. “She’s definitely on my list of five people who you want to have dinner with.”
Jane Austen (1775-1817) would have lots of dinner dates, were she still alive. It’s a modern-day romance whose roots go back centuries.
Long before chick lit, long before chick flicks, long before flicks, for that matter, readers in search of exquisite stories about love and all its wonders and follies turned to Austen.
Her six novels, with their legendary wordplay and witty one-liners, have never gone out of print. The most famous and widely read, Pride and Prejudice (1813), is a perennial top literary seller at national bookstore chains Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Austen is often cited as the mother of contemporary chick lit, starting in 1996 with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. And in recent years, a constant parade of Austen-related prequels, sequels and spinoffs have crammed bookstore shelves.
More Austen mania:
•The Jane Austen Book Club opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 21. The film is based on Karen Joy Fowler’s best seller about six contemporary California women who read Austen’s books and stars Lynn Redgrave, Maria Bello and Emily Blunt.
•Beginning in January, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre will broadcast adaptations of Austen’s novels and a new drama based on her life. The series, The Complete Jane Austen, includes new presentations of Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.
•She’s the inspiration for several new novels this summer, including Austenland, Me and Mr. Darcy and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which feature modern heroines who connect with the Regency scribe.
Which raises the question: Why, in a Britney/Lindsay/Paris-saturated culture, does a lady novelist born in 18th-century England resonate so much with us today?
“I think there’s an excellence to Jane Austen that people crave,” says Hathaway. “Right now, I think it’s fair to say that mediocrity is being celebrated, and Austen will never stop being excellent. So it’s very reassuring.”
Of course, that hasn’t prevented the makers and cast of Becoming Jane from spicing up their story with a little sex appeal.
Though Becoming Jane character Tom Lefroy is based on a real man Austen was attracted to (according to letters to her sister), the film imagines a possible romance and how it influenced her literary work. It takes liberties with the details of her life but captures much of the sensibility of her novels with passion, wit and wisdom underlying a strict code of conduct.
In one scene, Austen and Lefroy walk upstairs to meet his uncle, who needs to give his blessing to their proposed engagement. Lefroy reaches out and fondles Austen’s hand and sensuously fingers the folds of her satiny skirt.
“That was my idea,” Hathaway says. “I’m a hopeless romantic.”
Sadly, poor Jane Austen may have never gotten to first base in real life.
The seventh child of an English country clergyman, Austen was 35 in 1811 when she published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility.
Unlike her heroines, who always find Mr. Right after overcoming their own prideful natures, Austen lived with her family as an adult and never married. She died in 1817 at age 41 of undetermined causes, although Addison’s disease and breast cancer have been conjectured.
“She was a lot more free-spirited than she was given credit for,” says Hathaway, whose portrayal will help dispel the image of Austen as a stuffy spinster. “She was warm and complicated, sometimes graceful. She loved dancing. Like everyone, she wanted romance and happiness.”
Becoming Jane screenwriter Kevin Hood infused the story with restrained eroticism. He wrote a scene in which Austen subtly swoons as Lefroy verbally seduces her by reading a passage from a natural-history book about the sensual flight of a pair of birds.
“Jane’s is a very erotic world, it’s just coded and held back in reserve,” Hood says.
Colin Firth deserves the credit, or blame, for the modern sexualization of Austen. His portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice had women panting and is cited by many Austen experts as a revelation.
“The most recent (Austen) surge really started in 1995 when Colin Firth emerged from that pond with his white shirt cleaving to his manly chest,” says Joan Ray, author of Jane Austen for Dummies. “That immediately set off a wave of interest in Jane Austen.”
And Mr. Darcy. There is an entire sub-genre of sequels that bring Elizabeth Bennet’s husband into sharper focus. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (2004) and Darcy & Elizabeth (2006), by Linda Berdoll, are the No. 1 and No. 2 best-selling Pride and Prejudice sequels, according to publisher Sourcebooks.
But it all begins, and ends, with Austen. “She’s almost eerily contemporary despite the bonnets, the balls and the carriages, because she’s so keen and hilarious an observer of human nature,” says author Laurie Viera Rigler. “To me, it’s as if she’s a modern-day psychotherapist who time-traveled back to the Regency period and writes a novel about everyone who spent time on her couch.”
Rigler and a growing number of other authors are riding the Austen wave. Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane AustenAddict (Dutton, $24.95), published today, is about an L.A. woman who tries to mend her broken heart by reading Austen.
There is an audience for new titles that keeps Austen’s eternal flame burning, booksellers say.
“People read Austen’s novels over and over again and just want to know what happens next,” says Deanna Parsi of Borders. New titles “Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter and Austenland by Shannon Hale illustrate the timeless and universal appeal of Jane Austen. Her themes of society and love and relationships and family are still as relevant today as they were during her time.”
The first Austen sequel is believed to have been published in 1914. Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton, newly reissued by Sourcebooks, involves some of Austen’s best-known characters. In the book, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy and Emma Woodhouse Knightley are close friends deeply involved in the business of matchmaking.
“I think Jane Austen simply didn’t leave a big enough body of work,” says Sourcebooks’ Deb Werksman. “So you read the six novels, two or three of which you can consider masterpieces, and you read them and then read them again and again. But after reading them 15 times, you just begin to want more. Anything that will evoke the work of Jane Austen becomes very appealing.”
Much of that appeal is comic. After all, Austen’s forte was the comedy of manners.
“Her humor is timeless: so insightful and complete and satisfying,” says Hathaway.
And who can resist a heroine like flawed-but-adorable Elizabeth Bennet, or Jane Austen herself?
As Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold puts it: “Each generation finds something new in Austen. She’s really permeated our culture. I think people relate to the strong, feisty, independent-minded women she portrays and, to some extent, was herself. I think that speaks to us now.”<< Back