Jane Austen is pretty popular these days. I’d be interested to know how many of her fans have actually read her books as opposed to merely watching the movies based on them. How many really love Jane Austen, and how many just love Colin Firth?
I think I have the right to count myself a bona fide Jane Austen fan. I’ve just completed my eleventy-umpteenth approximately-annual rereading of her whole collected works (in addition to seeing the movies so many times I can quote them almost in toto). This time I read with a slightly different eye, deliberately comparing the books to the films. I think the versions I’m most familiar with—the A&E Pride & Prejudice, the Emma Thompson Sense & Sensibility, the BBC Mansfield Park, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, and the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds Persuasion—all did a pretty good job of translating the books to film. They kept the essentials, dropped the parts that don’t make good watching, and filled in with real-time scenes a lot of what is merely summary in the books.
Nevertheless, anyone who knows Jane Austen only through the movies is missing quite a lot. It’s true that the books are long, the language is a trifle archaic, and there are extended passages where not a whole lot happens, all of which make them somewhat heavy weather for contemporary film-bred readers. But contained within all those non-screenworthy passages is a lot of what makes Jane Austen great: her deep understanding of human nature and her rock-solid faith and morality.
You will rarely, if ever, read the name of God in a Jane Austen novel. You will read about foolish and disgraceful clergymen as well as about good ones. In this, Austen simply reflects the ethos and the reality of her day. But what you do see is heroines who repent of their flaws and mistakes and actually change their lives in consequence. When an Austen heroine gets her man at the end of the novel, it’s because she really deserves him.
Oh, right, I titled this post, “Ten Reasons I Love Jane Austen,” so you’re expecting a list. Okay, here goes:
Ten Reasons I Love Jane Austen (in no particular order)
1. Woe to you, hypocrites! Austen is wickedly funny, but she only makes fun of people who deserve to be made fun of. She never takes cheap shots at those whose circumstances make them pitiable.
2. The all-seeing eye. Austen has an incredible understanding of human nature in all its vagaries—the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.
3. She wrote the book on virtue. Austen is deeply moral and so thoroughly Christian that she doesn’t need to parade it. As I mentioned above, her characters actually repent and consciously pursue a life of virtue.
4. Ladies and gentlemen. The heroes in Austen novels are true gentlemen. “A lady needn’t fear when they are near,” to misquote Disney’s Mary Poppins. And the heroines are feminine in the best sense of the word.
5. Good girls aren’t goody-goodies. The entire society she depicts is founded on a much stricter ethical and moral basis than ours today. Insisting on keeping one’s virginity until marriage was normal, not so weird it could get you ostracized among your peers.
6. World enough and time. Austen’s characters live in a much more gracious world: a slow-paced, courteous, mostly rural world in which people had plenty of leisure, but some of them, at least, spent it in rational pursuits.
7. Happy endings. The heroine always gets her man—and he’s always the really right man for her. We can believe in these couples living happily ever after, because their love is founded on rational as well as romantic grounds.
8. Words to the wise. Austen is not only witty but wise. Every time I read an Austen novel, I come away a little wiser.
9. Move over, Miss Manners. Austen’s characters have a highly refined sense of courtesy and propriety. In some respects this seems ridiculous to us today, but it was founded on genuine consideration for other people’s feelings. We could use more courtesy and propriety in our day.
10. Great clothes. The fashions of her time are more appealing and less restrictive than those of any other period of the nineteenth century. I can actually imagine myself wearing them with some degree of comfort. (I had to put in one frivolous reason after all this serious stuff!)
So if you’re a movie-only Jane Austen fan, I encourage you to take the plunge and experience the full-immersion world of her novels. I promise you won’t regret it.