Friday, December 16, 2005

Jane Austen, Poolside

In the 1990s, when Jane Austen's novels became the basis for some moderately popular film productions (among them, Sense and Sensibility, 1996, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant; the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995, with Jennifer Ely and Colin Firth; and Emma, 1996, with Gwyneth Paltrow -- not to mention Amy Heckerling's gleeful adaptation of Emma for the 90210 zip code, Clueless, 1995, starring Alicia Silverstone), a tabloid "photograph" cleverly depicted the 19th century spinster-novelist sitting poolside in Hollywood, in kerchief and gown, taking calls from her manager and her agent.

Not too shabby for a woman who was, during much of her life, "no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills the corner in peace and quietness," according to her contemporary, Mary Mitford.

Despite the fact that the whole notion of a female novelist was regarded by some as a sign of moral decay in her time, of the thousands of novels published in English during the first half of the 19th century by man or woman, Austen's have proven among the most durable -- stylistically unobtrusive and eminently readable, yet unmistakably a part of the literary canon for their intelligence and observational detail.

The 7th child of a country parson (born on this day in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, England), Jane Austen was encouraged to develop the elegant skills necessary for her intended trade -- middle-class wife and mother -- receiving instruction in music, drawing and dancing, and acquiring a good knowledge of literature from her father's 500-volume library; she especially admired the works of Samuel Johnson, William Cowper and Samuel Richardson.

However, Austen never married (she seems to have been involved in only two brief courtships, one which was apparently cut short by meddling relatives of the young man who felt that the daughter of a penniless clergyman was not a worthy match, the other by her beau's sudden untimely death), and she spent her life staying in the extra bedrooms of family members. She began writing for the amusement of her family, lampooning 18th century sentimental romances by injecting common sense into the customarily over-the-top melodramatic circumstances.

In her 30s, she began to pursue novel-writing seriously, if somewhat secretly, doing her best to hide the fact that she was writing from the people with whom she lived, and during her lifetime publishing her novels anonymously -- Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). With the use of an omniscient third-party narrator peering into the consciousness of her fallible yet sympathetic and highly perceptive female protagonists, Austen's works are objects of "statecraft" and diplomacy wittily played out in the drawing rooms of the British gentry. Although her little world is one of highly restricted gender relations, with economically disadvantaged mothers and daughters searching for husbands from among the landowners and parish pastors without being permitted to be seen to be searching, her intelligent heroines rise above their circumstances as social catalysts and keepers of the moral and ethical identity of England, as well as its culture and its destiny.

In March 1817, her novels having achieved some measure of popular success, Austen became seriously ill with Addison's Disease, a malfunction of the adrenal cortex, and died while seeing her physician in Winchester, just 3 days after writing a comic poem marking St. Swithun's Day. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously later that year; by the 1830s, Austen's works were already considered to be popular classics.

The roll of cinema credits for Ms. Austen has continued into the 21st century, with three new versions of Pride and Prejudice: a version set among Mormons and college students (2003), a Bollywood adaptation called Bride and Prejudice (2004), and a new "faithful" version starring Keira Knightley (2005).

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4:25 PM  

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