Monday, March 9, 2020

Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Jane in Vain

Annamaria on Monday

One would not think that one of the greatest novelist of all time - in any language - would need the likes of me to defend her.  But for decades now, I have been appalled at the way popular opinion has played fast and loose with Jane's identity as an author.  I feel that, in my small way, I have to stand up for who she really was.

A recent assault on her reputation has forced me to speak up: the stroke that nearly caused me apoplexy was the recent British TV edition of Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon.  But before I get to that, allow me to call attention to the drivel about Jane that has had me fuming for a few decades.

I'll start with the biggest  lie of all.


Austen wrote brilliant satiric novels of manners.  She would not have said this about herself because when her genius was opening new, splendid vistas for book-length storytelling, the art form was still too young for its practitioners to be forced into categories.

Austen wrote one of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." 

With that salvo, Austen sets in motion a story about the absurd and painful events that can flow from such a belief.  Her characters, male and female, suffer under its weight and expectations.  Worst of all the daughters of Mrs. Bennet, the silly woman that her creator pillories throughout the story.   Mrs. Bennet is the first to speak and just about everything she says and does exemplifies the dangers of such a widespread and false assumption. 

I am peppering this post generously with quotes from Jane.  The one above is another case in point.  Such a jejune statement is being held up for ridicule.  Any character who would make such a remark is obviously going to be a prime example of the pitfalls of naive husband hunting.

Austen's acid wit does not merely chronicle the mores and customs of her age, she is satirizes them.  Read her Northanger Abbey and see how she satirizes the gothic novels so popular during her lifetime.

If you don't have armchair time to add another book to your to-be-read pile, listen to the audio version read by the splendid Glenda Jackson. 

By questioning the sobriquet "romance novelist" when it comes to Jane, I do not mean to belittle the work of such authors.  Or any other genre writers.  All the subcategories that we use today include writers of wonderful fiction.  Some of the best literature of our age is written by genre writers,  But to label Jane Austen as a romance writer would be like saying that William Shakespeare was an actor who also wrote some plays.  What Jane wrote is so very much more than books that can be so categorized.

Oh, the romances are there, and often offer the satisfaction of plausible happy endings.  But in every story, before the wedding, the characters must recognize and free themselves from their own pride, their own prejudice.  Before their creator bestows "happily ever after" upon them, they must learn to temper their own sensibility with a hefty dose of good sense. 

Almost nothing about this recent TV series truly reflects Jane Austen

What British TV did was to take the first twelve chapters of a novel Austen never got to finish and turn them into a one of their typical series.  Beautiful costumes and expensive sets, gorgeous actors, some of whom are really goosdat their jobs, but also hefty amounts voyeurism.  In this case there was graphic sex, but less nudity than one would usually find in such offerings.  The Regency period shows up in the costumes and the facades of buildings.  The interior decoration borders on surreal.  The dialogue is anachronistic in the extreme, and there is nothing Jane-like about the plot.  NOTHING! 

Austen's plot lines and characterizations are so tightly crafted that in every book there comes a moment when a character's emotions are in such conflict that the reader viscerally responds to how impossible it is for her to carry on.  I call these "Jane Austen moments."  Readers of Austen will recognize them:  When Colonel Brandon asks Elinor to offer the living of Delaford to Edward Ferrars so that he can marry Lucy Steele.  And when Anne Elliot receives the news that Louisa Musgrove will recuperate from her injury and will now be well enough to marry Frederick Wentworth.

Nothing remotely this interesting happens in the TV "completion" of Jane Austen's story.  Instead we get incest, boxing, fist fights, unsubtle references to a "hand job" and a fussy weathy matron talking openly about her ward and her nephew having had intercourse on the huge image of a snake in the center of her drawing room's marble floor.  She needn't have bothered to tell us about it.  We saw it for ourselves.

Did you notice in the picture above that the title says, "Jane Austen's Sanditon?"  Why do you suppose they said that, when they knew that not one person connected with the show thought in the least about trying to imagine where Austen was going with that story.  Not that anyone but Jane herself could come near to what her genius imagination would have invented.  What I resent is that they didn't even try.  They took Jane's name in vain because they knew it would sell.  I hope they choke on their takings.

In this case, pictures of schlock make ME sick and wicked.


  1. But how do you REALLY feel??? :-)

    As happenstance would have it, we just finished watching it last night, and while it was an enjoyable British show, I have to agree with your every point. Very pointed, indeed.

  2. EvKa, Agreed! If they had left Austen's name off it, I would have thought it mildly amusing if wildly anachronistic. At least least it was not as over the top as the typical British hacking and sex fest. That they tried to sell it as an Austen story was an insult. To Jane's genius. And to the sensibilities of my Jane-loving friends and me.

  3. I haven't watched that TV series as yet, Annamaria. Your comments may have saved me some valuable time!

    1. Good choice, Zoe. If you want to see Jane on the screen, watch "Persuasion." If you've seen it, I suggest you watch it again. The sequence of all the Musgroves complaining to Jane about her sister Mary's behavior is alone is worth your time.

  4. I've been away from many media sources, so it it wonderful to read that more people hated that BBC abomination of Sanditon. I have to see the awful through to the bitter end in order to be truthful in my opinions. The script writer did not know ANYTHING about Austen!

  5. The head of the college English Department where I taught a few years back is a recognized Jane Austen authority, but to me she's more her embodiment! Great Ladies.