Austen Space: 7 Classics To Explore in 2019
by Mandi Harrison
The opening line of Pride & Prejudice made me giggle the first time I read it. At the time, I thought I was just reading something off my required reading list; I didn’t realize I was reading a great piece of social satire, and what would soon become one of my favorite books. The women in Jane Austen’s day had no rights to their family’s money, so they would have to marry, and marry well in order for good social standings and their security. Mothers and daughters alike were consumed with finding advantageous matches. (Think Cinderella’s stepmom and her offspring) Jane’s writings were a satirical account of the times, and critiques of the novels of ‘sensibility’ that were the fashion. Her use of irony, realism, humor and realism have earned Jane a place among the most respected writers in history.
She was never able to publish her works with her real name while she was alive, or have the recognition that she deserved, because women weren’t legally able to sign contracts and a lot of other misogynistic bullshit. (The manner in which she was able to even have her books published- BULLSHIT. She had to pay to have the books printed, all risk was on her and the ‘publisher’ took his significant profit before she saw anything. And don’t get me started on reprints and foreign rights. Sorry, I’m a little heated.) Anyway, her first published novel, Sense & Sensibility, was such a success, her other novels were released as being “by the author of Sense & Sensibility.” There was a market for her work (Representation even mattered in the 1800’s!)
After her early death, her family worked to get Jane’s unreleased work published, under her name. Since 1833, her novels have continually been in print, which is kind of amazing, and Jane Austen has become an important part of literary and pop culture. 200+ years later, her stories are still relevant and her voice is still alive in our world. To me, she is a precursor to Nora Ephron, the one who sees all and speaks the truth. The one who just gets it.
Not counting all her brilliant letters and short stories that have been found and preserved, Jane Austin has 7 novels that are full of wit and charm. Here they are, along with some of the ways they have been adapted over the years.
Sense & Sensibility
(first published 1811)
The story of the sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood started as a series of letters Jane wrote as a story to amuse her family. It’s said that she wrote the first draft of the novel when she was 19. The first printing of the novel sold out of the 750 copies within 2 years, which was huge for a female author. The title comes from one sister who lives life through thinking and behaving rationally and the other who is fueled by her emotions. Family dynamics and how society views charity and friendship is best seen in this novel. I would compare the family’s relationship with the one in Little Women, which is to say, extremely lovely and heartwarming. Sense & Sensibility is much softer than some of her other works, but no doubt, this is an Austen classic.
Notable Film Adaptation: Sense & Sensibility (1995, director Ang Lee) Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation by Emma Thompson. Yes, THAT Emma Thompson. It’s got Ang Lee’s gorgeous vision with the beauty of Jane’s story and the actors are incredible. Emma, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant. It’s like stepping into the novel.
Fun Fact: The Hilary & Hayley Duff classic, Material Girls is a LOOSE adaptation of S&S !!!
Pride & Prejudice
(first published 1813)
Pride & Prejudice is considered Jane’s masterpiece, appearing on many ‘most loved books’ lists from literary scholars and the general public. P&P has inspired countless novels and movies and television shows, and has sold over 20 million copies of its own. The lead character, Elizabeth Bennet, and her nemesis/love, Mr. Darcy, are two of the most beloved characters in literary history. What is it about these two and the whole of P&P that has kept people swooning for hundreds of years? It is classified as a romantic novel, but for me, it is about female empowerment. All the female characters, from Elizabeth to her sisters to their meddling mother, even her friend Charlotte and the horrid Miss Bingley, often take their destiny into their own hands. This is definitely a story with active characters, everything is cause and effect. (It does contain some extremely romantic moments though, so I don’t complain too much about the romance label) P&P is not only my favorite of Jane’s to read (I mean, Elizabeth is just so relatable-ly ridiculous), it’s one of my favorite overall novels.
Notable Film Adaptations:
Pride & Prejudice (1940 film, directed by Robert Z. Leonard) starring Greer Garson & Laurence Olivier ( just sooo much old Hollywood glamour)
Pride & Prejudice ( 1995 BBC serial, directed by Simon Langton) This is considered to be the best version of P&P, most notably for Colin Firth’s performance of Mr. Darcy, however I urge you to consider…
Pride & Prejudice (2005 film, directed by Joe Wright) starring Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, amongst other incredible actors. This movie is just gorgeous. I mean, there is a scene that just makes me swoon over its beauty. And Kiera is the perfect Elizabeth Bennet. I just love this movie so, so much.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996 novel by Helen Felding and 2001 film directed by Sharon Maguire) One of the most notable adaptations, Bridget is a loose interpretation of Elizabeth, with Hugh Grant as the Wickham-esque character and Colin Firth playing another Mr. Darcy- Mark Darcy to be exact.
Fun Facts: P&P played an important role in You’ve Got Mail, as well as being an inspiration for The Mindy Project and the classic, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.
(first published 1814)
Mansfield Park went from being (mostly) ignored by critics of the time and beloved by readers (the first printing of the novel sold out in six months) to being considered Jane’s most controversial novel. The main character Fanny Price has been described as inane and the Bertram family, who cared for her, as appalling characters, full of contempt and self-righteousness and selfishness. A counterpoint to that critique is that Mansfield Park has more shades of grey than her other works, and that these characters have far more complexity than she had used before. Mansfield Park delves into the dark side of higher society, sex and scandal are all around; impropriety is just rumored upon in her earlier works. Even in P&P, the scandal between Lydia and Wickham is hinted at to the point the reader can put two and two together. Everyone has a different interpretation of the meaning behind Mansfield Park; I just find it fascinating that something that was written over 200 years ago is still the topic of debate.
Notable Film Adaptation: Mansfield Park (1999 film, directed by Patricia Rozema
(first published 1815)
Many critics consider P&P to be Jane Austen’s masterpiece, but confess that Emma is their favorite of her works. The story of the naive wannabe-matchmaker who messes everything up but means well is completely enjoyable and authentic to human nature. When Jane submitted the manuscript to the publisher, he offered her £450 for the copyright to Emma, Mansfield Park AND S&S. She refused, instead paying for the printing of 2,000 copies of Emma herself and keeping the copyright herself. It has been translated and sold in many countries, and has remained in continuous publication since the late 1800’s.
Notable Film Adaptations:
Emma (1996 film, directed by Douglas McGrath) Starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, this movie is warm and delightful.
Clueless (1995 film, directed by Amy Heckerling) Alicia Silverstone is Cher, a contemporary take on Emma. Despite the “modernization”, this is a pretty faithful retelling of the story of Emma. Clueless is a classic in it’s own right, and Jane Austen had a huge part in that.
Fun Fact: Many critics have noted that Jane uses the town of Highbury as a character of its own, not just a location. This has been used by other storytellers, like Nora, Woody Allen and even on Sex & The City!
Northanger Abby (first published posthumously 1818)
This was released after her death in 1817, but it was one of her first novels that was ready to be published in 1803 and possibly the first she wrote, beginning in 1794. Jane had sold the copyright to a publisher, but he refused to print the manuscript or return the copyright to Jane, instead selling it back to her brother. This novel has several variations of tone, having been written during various stages of Jane’s life. The book is a parody of Goth fiction, which was popular at the time. The main character Catherine, wants to be an adventurer and seek happiness from things that matter, not just from social standings and material goods. The themes of class and behavior and morality are more on the nose in this novel, as this originated as one of her earlier works. Her brother changed the title, from Susan to Northanger Abby, upon releasing it after her death, as a collection with Persuasion
Persuasion (first published posthumously 1818)
This was the last novel to be fully completed by Jane before her death. The title, Persuasion, was chosen by her brother; her working title was The Elliots. Unlike her other novels, Persuasion wasn’t adapted from earlier versions of works she had done in the past. This was more mature than any of her previous works. It’s thought to be inspired by her niece and her thoughts on how society “persuades” women to think and act.
(first published posthumously 1871)
Much like the original version of S&S, Lady Susan is a series of letters written by Lady Susan Vernon, newly widowed and trying to use her charms to find shelter and security for herself. Thought to be written in 1794 and never submitted for publication, the collection of letters was finally published in 1871, more than 50 years after Jane’s passing. Lady Susan is unlike most female characters in literature from that time; she is witty, intelligent and flaunts her sexuality, using her charms to get what she wants. Even by today’s standards, she is a piece of work and I. LOVE. IT.
Notable Film Adaptation: Love & Friendship (2016 film, directed and adapted by Whit Stillman) I’ve seen this movie numerous times and I laugh until I cry every time. I pick up something new each time, probably because I missed it during my previous viewing due to laughter. Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan and Chloë Sevigny’s Mrs. Johnson are such delightfully awful people; they are looking out for number one and don’t care about what others think. Their schemes and manipulations fail so often that it’s like watching Lucy & Ethel in 1700’s England.
Reading or watching Jane’s words, you feel as though you are there in the room. The situations and relationships could easily take place at any point in history. Her stories have a universal appeal, having been adapted into everything from Amish novels to Bollywood films. She has inspired countless novels and films, even just about people’s obsession with her, i.e. The Jane Austin Book Club and Austenland.
Unfortunately, while her works are so familiar and beloved, little is known about her short life. Her family edited and destroyed much of Jane’s personal writings after her death at the age of 41, from what it thought to be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Jane had potentially wrote over 3,000 letters, most of them to her sister Cassandra, but there are only 161 letters that have survived. Cassandra burned the majority of the letters, and censored numerous others in order for her family to not witness Jane’s acidic comments on family members and neighbors. The fact that she could be so catty just makes me love her even more. Jane Austen’s voice is authentic; she keeps a wide eye and a sharp tongue, no one was beyond her reproach. Her novels may be fiction, but they document a piece of history, and with each adaptation or reading, that history is kept alive.