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Universally misunderstood...

Universally misunderstood
By ANDREA MULLANEY

Chick-lit? Marriage-obsessed? Jane Austen adaptations have a lot to answer for.

IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good brain must be in want of a husband – even if she is a writer of genius. Indeed, perhaps especially so, for while readers were once content to speculate only on the characters within famous novels, now nothing will do but to rake over the character of their authors, too: particularly single, female authors. No longer can we accept that they may have carefully composed their stories from a fertile imagination, but in our own failure of imagination every artist must be writing from life; every fiction must necessarily be a true story disguised.

The first biography of Jane Austen, written by her brother, Henry, off-puttingly begins that hers was "not by any means a life of event"; her nephew, James, in his memoir written 50 years after her death, used an even more telling phrase: "of events her life was singularly barren". Barren: literally, not producing offspring, unproductive, lacking in interest. A most peculiar way to describe a life which produced six masterpieces, loved and admired by generations of readers and constantly adapted for the screen – the latest version of Sense and Sensibility, sexed up by Andrew Davies, is about to hit BBC1.

Yet while we may smile at Austen's respectable family rather missing the point (their memorial inscription praised her charity, sweetness of temper and "the extraordinary endowments of her mind" but did not mention her books), it's hardly a habit confined to the 19th century. In some ways, Austen's literary reputation has been going backwards, while the fame of her books increases. They are being shuffled off into a ladylike corner, reduced to a shadow of their fascinating whole, while their writer's spiky independence is rewritten as a romantic tragedy.

How did Jane Austen come to be so purely regarded as a writer for women only? It was not always the case: her earliest admirers included Sir Walter Scott and Byron's publisher, John Murray. The essayist and poet Thomas Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review, declared her second only to Shakespeare. Even by 1948, FR Leavis was placing her at the start of his influential great tradition of English fiction.

Unless obliged to revise for an exam, few men seem now to take up Jane Austen's works for pleasure. I've taught adult education courses on Austen at two different Scottish universities this year, to which a surprising number of women came along first thing in the morning or on cold wet nights, eager to discuss every aspect of the books. Most had read them numerous times, relating them to their own lives, feeling them to be as alive as if they'd been published yesterday. And only one man turned up – who introduced himself by cheerfully admitting he was there purely because his other class was cancelled.

Asking around men of my acquaintance, most hadn't even tried reading Austen, put off by the adaptations. Perhaps they glaze over when presented, even in print, with the sight of a bonnet, mentally fainting away like the heroines of Austen's hilarious teenage satire, Love and Freindship. (her spelling, dear reader). "It's the proto-chicklit thing," said one, himself actually a lecturer. "They're all about women desperately trying to get themselves married off."

Actually, they're not, any more than Hamlet is a ghost story or Bleak House is just about a court case. But I can see why some men, and the many women who don't fancy some sort of period Mills & Boon either, might think that's all there is to them. For the Austen industry is about more than the books themselves – there are adaptations, sequels and chicklit spin-offs, and all are geared towards an interpretation of her stories which downplays the sharp social satire and the firm morality of her work, foregrounding the romance. Mr Darcy is enshrined as the ultimate lover, whether in his Colin Firth wet shirt guise or Bridget Jones's modern version of Colin Firth in, well, another wet shirt.

Having started the modern revival of Jane-fever (if it can ever be said to have gone away) with his beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Davies's word is law. And for Sense and Sensibility, he boasts of "butching up" the male characters, who just weren't manly enough to make women viewers swoon. "I've had to work up the guys to make them stronger. Austen never really had men in her books on their own, or men without women," he said at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival earlier this year. "I don't think she really understood them." Odd that, for a woman with six brothers who grew up in a house used for a small boys' school.

Davies depressingly describes the book as "a sort of rural Sex and the City" and has included, of course, another wet shirt scene. If only Austen had realised that she was meant to be writing a tame masturbatory fantasy – instead of a carefully dramatised debate about how to reconcile private feelings with public duty, discretion and self-control with emotion and openness – she would surely have rectified this omission herself.

It is certainly true that each of her heroines eventually marries happily, but Jane Austen was no romantic novelist. She enjoyed reading – and parodying – the extravagant Gothic romances of Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith, with their wicked seducers, innocent virgins, improbable coincidences and true love at first sight. But her own books favour calm good sense over passion, with their emphasis on harsh economic facts and the importance of shared values and interests to a successful partnership.

Her women are smart and principled: not for them the idea that "love conquers all". Those who forget that – like Marianne in S&S, who mistakes a poetic pose for true feeling and loses her heart to the untrustworthy Willoughby – end up scarred. Marriage, in an age when women's lives were constrained, was a necessary career decision for most. If a society doesn't allow its women to be fully educated or work professionally, choices narrow down to their one moment of power. After marriage, it was lost: married women had no rights to property or even to their own children. No wonder it was so important to choose the right person to, literally, control your life; but even in the face of economic necessity, Austen insists on women knowing their own value and never compromising their inner worth.

None of that inconvenient practicality survives in the Austen spin-off industry, which revels in girly nostalgia. There are dozens of sequels to her books, most of which are to the originals as a Topshop blouse is to a Regency gown. There are at least two books purporting to be Mr Darcy's Diary (sadly neither in the Bridget Jones mode: "Duels – 2, Cigars – 4, v.g., Hours thinking about Miss E. Bennet's fine eyes – 18").

There are saucy books revealing the secrets of the Darcy bedroom (Mr Darcy Takes a Wife, by Linda Bagnoll), "what if" books where the story plays out differently but still ends the same (The Pemberley Variations by Abigail Reynolds), books in which minor characters get their moment to shine (Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken, who is one of the few writers to make a decent stab at historically accurate prose). But all of them have far more sentimental confessions of love than any Austen hero actually delivers.

Then there are the modern chicklit trifles, inspired by Helen Fielding's clever homage in the original Bridget Jones's Diary. Contemporary women find themselves in uncannily similar positions to Austen's characters, some even travelling back in time like the heroines of Me and Mr Darcy, by Alexandra Potter, or Lost in Austen, a series by Guy Andrews to be shown on ITV next year. Emma Campbell Webster has written Being Elizabeth Bennet: A Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure, in which the reader is invited to rewrite the story (you can elope with Mr Wickham, if you wish).

There's even The Jane Austen Guide to Dating, by Lauren Henderson, which suggests an antidote to The Rules by learning from her characters' more sensible attitude to men and has a quiz which reveals "which Jane Austen heroine are you?" (disconcertingly, it turns out I'm the ****** Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park). Darcy, dating and wet shirts: this is all our finest satirist is being reduced to.

But what about Austen herself? With only six completed novels, the Jane Austen industry is now picking over her life, with the modern preoccupation of reducing artists, even dead ones, to the sum of their personalities and love lives rather than their work.

That "uneventful", "barren" life cannot be allowed to be the whole story: there must be something else, some secret romance. Earlier this year, the film Becoming Jane turned a minor incident in her early life, a week-long flirtation with a visiting young Irishman which she cheerfully joked about in letters, into the major, tragic "event" of which all her novels were supposedly lightly fictionalised accounts. At least 1998's Shakespeare in Love was a comedy and about a mostly unrecorded life; Becoming Jane blatantly twisted the known facts to fit its agenda, in the process reducing the writer to a sort of heritage Heat magazine star.

Next year, another drama (although subtler and more interesting), BBC1's Miss Austen Regrets, stars Olivia Williams as a middle-aged Jane fretting over her lost opportunities and under attack by her family for staying a spinster.

But actually, Austen's own letters reveal an acerbic and confident woman who was bloody relieved she hadn't got married and died young after churning out 11 children, like two of her sisters-in-law. Her sparky favourite niece, Anna, who at one time had hoped to write novels herself, married and immediately was lost to the repeated child-bearing common to the time. "Poor animal, she will be worn out before she is 30. I am very sorry for her … I am quite tired of so many children," wrote Austen, on hearing of her latest pregnancy. That does not sound like a woman who "regrets" having missed out on marriage and babies, which would have almost certainly prevented her writing.

That is the irony – that someone who rejected romance, in her life and work, should be held its greatest icon. Although she would probably have enjoyed all the men in wet shirts.

22 December 2007
Source: The Scotsman
Location: Scotland

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