Today I received an invitation to the first real-life event of the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society UK, and I cannot express how much I am looking forward to it. As excellent as the online events have been, being on Zoom prevents us from having those all-important chats.
The meeting got me thinking about the themes that tend to appear whenever I am with other Jane Austen fans. Here’s a quick list.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s story is often the first one future Jane Austen fans encounter, often through TV or film. Pride and Prejudice is also the best-known Austen novel, and the most adapted, so it’s no surprise that it tops the popularity charts.
At the same time, the Austen fan community appears to be a bit more split when it comes to their favourite book. Persuasion, long overlooked, seems to be gaining ground, with many readers appreciating its maturity more and more as they grow older.
Another book that tends to be much discussed is…
Mansfield Park (and Fanny Price in particular)
Bless Fanny Price. She is possibly the main character that most divides the Janeites. Some of us praise her resilience and ability to stick to her guns, in spite of her timid exterior. Others see her as bland, boring and pathetic.
To be fair, it’s not just Fannie, it’s the whole of Mansfield Park. For every reader who considers it a brilliant metaphor, there’s one attacking it as the book where nothing happens. And the big dilemma among fans: is Edmund really that boring? Compared to him, Henry Crawford scores high on the charm stakes.
Colin Firth may have turned out to be a rather splendid Mr Darcy, but there have been some awful casting choices as well. Some of the worst ones come up over and over again in conversations with fellow fans. Some examples:
Billie Piper looked too healthy and was way too sassy to play timid and sickly Fanny in the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Broad-shouldered and manly Ciarán Hinds was a much more credible and believable Captain Wentworth than gorgeous Rupert Penry-Jones in the respective 1995 and 2007 adaptations of Persuasion. Tamsin Greig is a top comedian, but her Miss Bates in the 2009 adaptation of Emma didn’t feel right.
However, most Janeites agree that it’s not the actors’ fault. We blame it instead on casting directors who can’t be bothered to read the novels (it shows!).
Jane Austen’s use of language
Shame on those who think Jane Austen is romantic literature! We know she is much more than that. The themes she touches upon are universal and pressing, the characters eternal. And the language! Literary critic George Steiner was spot on when he said that “the urbanity of Miss Austen’s diction is deceptive”.
The language Austen uses may seem straightforward enough, but the style, the untold meanings and the vocabulary are anything but. Austen uses an abundance of “polite” words such as nice, civil or fine, and gives them a subtly different meaning in every sentence. Fans can’t get enough of just how perfect her pitch is at all times.
Austen’s secondary characters
Austen’s leading characters jump from the page. They are so real, it’s easy to forget they’re fictional creations. But in Austen, there is much more beyond the hero and heroine. In my conversations with fellow Janeites I have detected much admiration for Austen’s secondary characters. Mr. Collins, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Aunt Norris, Caroline Bingley, Tom Bertram, Lady Bertram and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are just some of the ones that tend to appear in conversation. (They also appear in my Austen continuations, Miss Darcy’s Beaux and Miss Price’s Decision).
We all agree on is that Jane Austen was exceptionally gifted at crafting well-rounded characters, regardless of their actual importance in terms of “screen time”, and we love her for it.
I look forward to spending a day in the company of other Jane Austen fans, especially after the awful year and a half we have had. I may even look at visiting Bath again soon. Anyone for the Jane Austen Festival in 2021?