Between the Lines: Jane Austen Lives

| March 1, 2012 | 2 Comments

I couldn’t resist it, nor could, I imagine, any Jane Austen fan. “Death Comes to Pemberley” is a mystery by the acclaimed P. D. James, most of whose twenty previous novels have been adapted for television. James skillfully captures the Austen voice and takes readers six years past “Pride and Prejudice” and back into the presumed happily-ever-after lives of Darcy and Elizabeth. A “who-dunnit” with a dead body and a tidy ending.

But when will it end? We’ve been bombarded in recent years —for better and for worse—by ceaseless efforts to augment or embellish by sequel or parody or fantasy, to out-Austen Austen. To respond to the demand, perhaps; or to get on a profitable bandwagon of commercialization, some might say.

There have been film adaptations of Austen novels since a 1940 “Pride and Prejudice” with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, but the current wave of  “Austen mania” started in 1995 with the six-hour mini-series of “Pride and Prejudice” and Emma Thompson’s movie adaptation of  “Sense and Sensibility.” As a result people were reading Austen, and her books were back on best-seller lists; her six novels were reissued and adapted for new television and movie versions.

The sequels and parodies and fantasies followed—in books, TV and movie—“The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Becoming Jane,” and “Lost in Austen” to name a few. “Bridget Jones Diary” plays with the theme and characters of “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Clueless” is an update of “Emma.” Author Stephanie Barron jumped in with her Jane Austen mystery series, eleven novels since 2008. And bringing up the rear are the newest sensations, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” followed by “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.”

This is only scratching the surface. One of the many Austen blogs and websites expressed concern that it was getting out of hand in 2007, and it hasn’t stopped. In January 2008, PBS Masterpiece began airing productions of the novels, four of them brand new adaptations.

The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) was founded in 1979, way before the mania. One hundred people attended their inaugural event; now there are 4,000 members. There are regional groups, an annual conference, and several publications. JASNA’s vision is to “see more people reading the great authors, with special emphasis on Jane Austen.” Thus they must applaud the resurgence—the good, the bad and the ugly—as vehicles to bring people back to Austen and other classic literature.

My own literary mania has been for Virginia Woolf. I was wooed by the wave of popularity that started in the ‘80s and continues to this day, resulting in new editions of her work, movie adaptations and more. The 1998 novel and 2002 movie of “The Hours” were the apex, their worthiness much debated in Woolfian circles. The upshot was that whether we liked it or not, it was bringing new people to her life and work, and we believe that’s a good thing.

It’s the same with Jane Austen, the end justifying the means. If a comic book or science fiction farce incites someone’s interest—be they young or old—in reading one or all of Austen’s novels, then we all profit and, some might say, help make the world a kinder and gentler place.

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