This year, I challenged myself to read all 6 of Jane Austen’s books. How hard could it be? I have many friends who’ve read all of her books and loved them. And I’ve seen nearly every movie version of her books from Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to JJ Fields as Henry Tilney. I’ve watched and rewatched these love stories, falling in love as much as any of the characters. And I’ve considered myself a fan of the venerable Ms. Austen. I’ve even read some of the spin off books–like Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life, which was superb, and seen movies like Becoming Jane and The Jane Austen Book Club.
So why is it that a book-lover and romantic like myself can’t seem to get through these 6 books?
I have a theory. One that I shared with my friend Katie, who challenged me to write this blog. Maybe the book isn’t always better …
When Jane’s books were first published in the early 19th Century, the understanding of and appreciation for novels were still growing. Many belittled the practice of reading novels, as Jane herself explains in Northanger Abbey, when she spends 3 pages writing about how she’s not one of those authors who refuses to let her characters read novels. Thus Catherine Moorland, our heroine, indulges in the very thing that Jane hopes her own readers would do. Enjoying novels.
By taking the time to do this, Jane breaks every rule of modern novel writing. As a student of modern fiction, I see how Jane’s books conform to her own ideals and the current trends of her time, not ours. I also see how many of the movie versions have modernized some of Jane’s stories to fit with our ideas of drama and conflict.
Let’s take Mansfield Park, for example. I just finished listening to the unabridged audio version of the book. And I didn’t like it. At all. And I hated myself for not liking it. How could I not? To start with Fanny Price, the so-called heroine of the story, is weak and never really grows throughout the story. The one opportunity for her to assert herself comes when her uncle tells her she ought to marry the duplicitous Henry Crawford. She tells him that she won’t. He says she must. She tells him no. And that’s pretty much the end of the conflict.
Compare this with the 1999 movie version staring Frances O’Connor, where Fanny is a smart young woman, who holds her ground even when her uncle demands that she marry Crawford or be sent back to her parents’ home. The conflict is much more acute in the movie version, and it makes me feel for Fanny’s plight rather than feel as though she is a petulant child.
Many of the movie versions of Austen’s classics have modernized the characters–not by placing them in a different time, but rather by strengthening and changing the characters and conflicts in such a way that they fit more in line with modern ideals than they do with the original release dates. This is why many Austen purists dislike the films. Not only do they trim plot elements for timing, the movies sometimes change the entire conflict of the novel.
But for me, the change seems to be mostly for the better. When it comes to Ms. Austen, I must say that I think I far prefer to the movies to the books (at least the nearly 4 books that I’ve read all or parts of).
Please feel free to disagree. Just don’t do it by throwing stones. 🙂