"Summer afternoon — summer afternoon;
to me those have always been the two most beautiful words
in the English language."
— Henry James —
James, of course, is entirely correct. The only thing that could possibly improve a summer afternoon is a little Jane Austen. Or even a lot of Jane Austen. Not long ago, I had the urge to watch the 2008 BBC adaptation of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." (I much prefer it to the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson version.) Lucky for me there was a copy waiting on the shelf at the public library.
The production was as good as I remembered; perfect casting, costumes and scenery. There seemed to be only a modicum of invention and tampering with Austen's text; notably in setting of the Dashwood's cottage by the sea rather than deeper in the countryside. And I was annoyed again at the attempt to sex-up the off-stage seduction of a character we never meet and who is not even revealed until we're well into the story.
Of course, those things sent me back to the book to see exactly what Austen said and how and where and when. It's at moments like this that I know why I have a matched set of Modern Library editions of Austen's novels on my bookshelf. (I'm only missing P&P to make it a complete set). My re-reading of the story of the Dashwood sisters showed me how subtle Austen can be in setting the scene. I imagined the duel between Willoughby and Col. Brandon was a screen addition but there it was in the book; high drama though less obviously so in Austen's hands. And I marveled again at how well the cast of "Sense & Sensibility" meshed with Austen's characterizations in the novel.
While I was at the library picking up the Austen DVD, I took a quick look at the new books shelf where the title, "Jane's Fame," jumped out at me. I grabbed it on the assumption that there is only one Jane who is so famous she needs no introduction. (Well, maybe two if you count Tarzan's inamorta). And indeed the book looks at "How Jane Austen Conquered the World."
Part biography, part history and mystery, author Claire Harman looks at Austen from every angle and every era. There are so many versions and re-visions of Austen that this is an excellent way to discover what is fact, fiction and pure fantasy. Harman covers everything from likenesses of Austen, to all the different editions of her books, to who in the Austen family dealt with publishers and whether Jane cared about making money from her writing (the family said no, but Jane said otherwise in her letters).
All of the backstory about Austen's immediate family and descendants, the years spent trying to get her books into print etc., can get a bit overwhelming. What I found of most interest as a contemporary reader of Austen is how she came to be part of the canon, or canonized to be more accurate. Harman looks at how changing tastes in both literature and literary criticism aided Austen's fame. Until about fifteen years ago all surges of interest in Austen were related to anniversaries or publication of newly discovered documents.
But the 1995 film version of P&P with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth sparked an interest in Austen that has not abated. We are in an era of all Austen, all the time. There's the multiplication of treatments of the novels on screen, the entire literary genre of Austen-influenced romance novels (think Georgette Heyer), Austen take-offs ("Clueless," "Lost in Austen"), Austen compilations on YouTube, and Austen herself and her fictional characters now appear in countless other novels. Though I admit to being an Austen addict, I draw the line at zombies.
We are no longer particular, says Harman, where or how we get our Austen — as long as we get it! Reading "Jane's Fame" is not quite as much fun as reading Austen herself, but it will go a long way towards helping you understand your own Austen addiction.
If you've never seen Andrew Davies' adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" here's the PBS trailer for the DVD which will give you a feeling for both the story and the production without giving anything away.