Book Review: Jane Austen: Christian Encounter Series

Jane AustenBiographers of Jane Austen have a difficult task because Jane’s sister, Cassandra, destroyed much of her correspondence. But Peter Leithart endeavors to give us a sense of her in Jane Austen, part of publisher Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounter series. He draws from what letters we do have from her as well as others’ writings and remembrances of her. In his introduction he writes:

In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.

I particularly enjoyed these observations:

The best marriages in Austen’s novels are marriages of minds and temperament, marriages that make both husband and wife more fully themselves.

Austen believed there was a moral dimension to social behavior. Manners and morals do not exist in separate realms of life. Manners are a moral concern, and morals take specific shape in the gestures of manners.

Jane…was satirizing Romanticism before Romanticism existed.

Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen’s “exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”

This being part of a Christian Encounter Series, part of it focuses on her faith. This was what particularly drew me to this book, because some kind of faith is evident in her books, but I wasn’t sure if it was a general, surface faith or a heartfelt personal one.

In his biographical sketch of his sister, Henry described her piety: “Jane Austen’s hopes of immortality were built upon the Rock of ages. That she deeply felt, and devoutly acknowledged, the insignificance of all worldly attainments, and the worthlessness of all human services, in the eyes of her heavenly Father. That she had no other hope of mercy, pardon, and peace, but through the merits and suffers of her Redeemer.” Jane never used such Evangelical language, preferring the more formal cadences of prayer-book Anglicanism, but that doesn’t falsify the substance of Henry’s characterization.

The Austens’ Christianity was not the excitable Christianity of Bunyan or John Newton, but a cooler, more rational and more ethically focused Christianity, which expressed itself chiefly in acts of charity.

Despite her comparative reticence and her careful avoidance of moralizing, Austen’s faith was sincere and deep.

Biographers minimize Austen’s Christianity mainly because they cannot believe that her acerbic, sometimes childishly cruel wit, her satires of the clerical imbecilities of Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, and her playful silliness are compatible with deep Christian faith…the assumption that Christian faith is incompatible with a satirical spirit is entirely wrongheaded.

Long-time readers here know that I generally love biographies, but, although I hate to do so, I must admit this is not a favorite. First of all, Leithart begins by going into great detail about a plethora of Jane’s relatives. That section got quite confusing and, though some of that information was necessary to understand Jane in context, to me the bulk of it detracted from rather than enhanced focus on her. Secondly, Leithart insists on calling her “Jenny” at least half the time, if not more, without documenting that she was ever called that. In my search to discover whether she was actually ever called Jenny, I came across this review of this book which mentions that her father spoke of her as “Jenny” to his sister shortly after Jane was born. But that hardly qualifies it as a permanent nickname, especially since none of the other correspondence or memorials of her call her Jenny. To make it worse, Leithart speaks of “Jenny” as if she were the “real” Austen. He evidently used the name to emphasize her child-likeness.

Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.

She recognized her own smallness, and she achieved artistic greatness because she recognized her limitations and joyfully worked within them, because she refused to outgrow being Jenny.

Quotes like these samples seem to imply that she was conscious of “being Jenny” when her “being Jenny” seems to me to be an implication only of Leithart.

Leithart comes across to me as pretentious in other ways as well: in his coining of his own word for Jane Austen mania (“Janeia”), in his criticism of other Austen biographers, and in what seems to me to be his mischaracterizations of her (“In another age, Austen might have written for Saturday Night Live.”)

There is an odd mix-up of characters from different books when Leithart says “Fanny Price is ignored and lost within the constant din of domestic life. She feels liberated when Frank Churchill shows up to take her into the open air.” Fanny is from Mansfield Park and Frank is from Emma.

While I don’t know that Leithart accurately “captured” Austen, this book does present a compact overview of her life, times, and career.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)



Book Review: Emma, Mr. Knightly, and Chili Slaw Dogs

Emma and Chili Slaw DogsThis title of Emma, Mr. Knightly, and Chili Slaw Dogs by Mary Hathaway intrigued me when I saw it listed on fellow “What’s On Your Nightstand” participant Tonia’s post in May (which is one advantage of the Nightstand posts – new book recommendations!) I got it to read for the the Austen in August Challenge for which we can include spin-offs of Austen’s books as well as books by or about her.

As you can guess by the title, this book is a take-off of Austen’s Emma (linked to my review). It’s part of a series titled Jane Austen Takes the South, the first of which was Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits (which I have not read but have put on my TBR list!) The books are all set in the modern-day South, this one in a small town called Thorny Hollow, though I don’t remember if the state is named.

Caroline Ashley was a promising journalist for The Washington Post, but her father’s sudden death has left her mother unable to cope, so Caroline left her job to care for mother and their antebellum house. She chafes over helping with society luncheons and bridge parties and has plans someday for more articles and a book, but nothing ever seems to come to fruition. The one bright spot in her life is longtime family friend Brooks Elliott, a journalism professor and heir to a nearby estate. A costumed Jane Austen-themed party and Civil War reenactors add to the story.

When an exciting, handsome newcomer offers Caroline a job in a new publishing venture, Brooks distrusts him, but Caroline welcomes the offer. And when a neighbor’s beautiful, accomplished granddaughter seems to vie for and catch Brooks’ Caroline, Emma is dismayed.

Knowing the book is based on Emma, we know where the plot is ultimately going to go, but it’s fun to see how it plays out in this setting and to look for the other reworked characters in the story. Not all of Austen’s characters and scenes are here: I don’t think I saw a Mr. Elton and his conniving wife as well as some others. Plus there are a few characters and plot points not in the original books. But the story isn’t meant to be a carbon copy: it’s a modern-day retelling.

There are modern attitudes as well, which is only natural, but one I was sad to see was towards Caroline’s mother. Though Emma’s father was a hypochondriac and a little ridiculous at times, everyone was kind and solicitous towards him, with Emma even declining to marry out of care for him. In this book, both Caroline and Brooks speak somewhat disdainfully of her mother, though later Caroline does come to understand her a little better and they come to an understanding.

I liked that Caroline, who comes from an old-money, well-established family, has to have her thinking challenged in regard to a less fortunate acquaintance and in regard to how others of her set have to handle dealing with their aging homes. Some of these beautiful old homes cost a fortune to maintain, and though there is regret that some of them have to “go commercial” in some way to make it, it’s an understandable and real issue.

I wasn’t sure if the book was marketed as Christian fiction, though the back cover mentions “good Christian women with spunk to spare” as part of the cast. As I looked at some reviews and sites after reading the book, apparently it was, but I’d say it’s light on the Christian aspect. About all I can recall being mentioned along those lines is one character being encouraged to pursue her God-given gifts and Brooks recalling his grandmother’s talk about “ferreting out God’s will” for one’s life. Nothing necessarily wrong with that – some authors and readers, even among those who like Christian fiction, don’t like it to be heavy-handed, and I agree that it needs to be natural and not preachy or forced. But, as I’ve said before, there are normal things you’d expect to see Christian people doing that are largely absent here.

There’s also one scene that reviewers argued over, some calling it R-rated, some saying it’s clean and merely a kiss. I’d say it goes beyond being merely a kiss, but while it’s not R-rated, it’s more PG 13 than I’d expect to see in a book like this. It’s meant to jolt the characters into realizing their feelings for each other and into changing the dynamic, but I think that could have been done with a “mere kiss.”

Overall I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to reading more in the series.

The back of the book as well as several blurbs online say that “Mary Jane Hathaway is the pen name of an award-nominated inspirational fiction writer who spends the majority of her literary energy on subjects un-related to Jane Austen.” I do wonder why she chose a pen name for this series, especially since her real name is mentioned on Amazon, and she owns up to these books on her blog. She is also a “homeschooling mother of six young children,” which make me question my excuses for not getting a book written! There is a Facebook page for the Jane Austen Takes the South series here.


(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Austen in August Challenge Wrap-up

Austen in August

Lost Generation Reader sponsored an Austen in August reading challenge for those who wanted to read something by, about, or related to Jane Austen during the month of August. I read:

Just Jane, A Novel of Her Life by Nancy Moser (links are to my reviews)

Dear Mr Knightly by Katherine Reay

Northhanger Abbey via audiobook, a reread and re-listen: linked to my original review from a few years ago.

I’m also currently listening to Persuasion.

I really enjoyed the challenge, although I neglected to check back with Lost Generation Reader throughout the month and missed some giveaways! She also had a variety in interesting posts about Austen and her work. I’ll know better next year!

Book Review: Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr KnightleyThe cover and title of Dear Mr. Knightley almost makes you think it will be a cute modern takeoff of Jane Austen’s Emma. But it’s far from that, and, oh my, so rich on so many levels.

Samantha Moore (known as Sam) has spent most of her life in the foster care system. Because of her past and being so often moved about, she finds it hard to relate to people: to protect herself from being hurt she hides her true self. She confesses, “I let go of people and relationships to protect myself, and then I detached so completely that I lost the ability to relate.” At one foster care home she discovered classic books. She became fast friends with Jane Eyre and loved the “safe, ordered, and confined” world of Jane Austen. Classic books became her refuge, and in many cases she responds to people by quoting them, thus hiding her real self.

When presented with the opportunity to receive a grant to go to graduate school, she decides to take it. One unusual stipulation is that the grantor wants to receive “personal progress letters” from her on a regular basis. To preserve his anonymity and give her more freedom to express herself, he goes by the pseudonym George Knightley. Sam accepts the conditions and finds school much harder than she thought and trying to open up and relate to people even harder. He letters to Mr. Knightley become “one-sided soul purgings,” made possible because of the anonymity and because she is sure they will never actually meet.

Much of the book unfolds her growth as a person and in her relationships, including one with a young hostile 14 year old who comes to the group home where she lives and with a couple of new friends at school. When she (literally) runs into her favorite contemporary author, who is speaking at a class in her school, she introduces herself and is invited to coffee, and so starts a tentative friendship with him. But just when she is learning to trust, will a betrayal set her back?

I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, but I loved watching Sam’s growth. A quick glance at some reviews at Amazon and Goodreads showed that some readers thought she was “a jerk” and didn’t like her. But that’s the whole point: she comes across that way (not in her letters, but to her potential friends) in the “I’m going to drive you away before you drive me away” stance that many people who have been deeply wounded take to protect themselves. Watching the ups and downs of her beginning to realize how she’s been coming across, open up, take risks, learn to trust was full of pathos. Similarly, her naivete, which some criticized, was, I thought, quite understandable since she hadn’t been in any kind of a setting where people tried to teach her about life, the world, and relationships until she came to Grace House, a group home, as a teenager. She eventually learns that “self-protection keeps you from love.”

I also loved the multitude of classic book references and quotes, not only from Austen and Bronte, but also Dickens, Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo), L. M. Montgomery, and C. S. Lewis. I especially liked a passage where Sam reads about Eustace becoming a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and realizes her own dragonish tendencies and her need to be delivered from them. Sam (and Reay) loves many of the same books I do. We became friends when she wrote that “George Knightly is a good and honorable man – even better than Fitzwilliam Darcy, and few women put anyone above Mr. Darcy. Yes, Darcy’s got the tempestuous masculinity and brooding looks, but Knightley is a kinder, softer man with no pretense or dissimulation. Yes, he’s a gentleman. And I can write with candor to a silent gentleman, and I can believe that he will not violate this trust.” Yes! I’ve always liked Knightley better than Darcy.

I appreciated the way the faith element was brought in very naturally. Sam isn’t open to it at first because she thinks “He doesn’t pay attention to me. But…I want to badly to believe that God cares, that all of this matters to Him, that all this pain has a purpose and that none of it tarnishes me forever.” After her encounter with a couple who show her Christ’s love, who “drop hints and hope like bread crumbs for me to follow,” she writes, “How can I not believe that there is a God who exists and loves, when the people before me are infused with that love and pour it out daily? I still can’t grasp that it’s for me, but what if it is?”

I’m normally not a fan of epistolary novels, because not many people really write letters at all these days, much less letters full of plot points and dialogue, but I could easily set that aside and just get into the story and its telling in this way. Even though I think such letters are still probably unrealistic, the style fit this story well. This is the first novel I have been this wrapped up in in a long time, eagerly looking for ways to get in more reading throughout the day (the Kindle app on the phone is nice for that: it’s a little harder to read on a small screen but handy if you find yourself with a few minutes to spare here and there).

I had gotten this book when it was either free or very inexpensive for the Kindle app, and then had forgotten about it. I’m thankful the Austen in August reading challenge reminded me it was there. Katherine Reay is a favorite new author. This is her first novel, and I eagerly await more.

Austen in August

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: Just Jane

Just JaneJust Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Life by Nancy Moser caught my eye when it came through as free or inexpensive for the Kindle app because I so enjoyed How Do I Love Thee?, her novelization of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life.

The novel is written from Jane’s point of view beginning when she is in her early twenties. She’s the seventh of eight children, the youngest of two girls. She enjoys writing and her family enjoys hearing her stories, but there doesn’t seem to be much thought of publishing yet. She has had some encounters with a Tom Lefroy to the point where she believes they have an understanding. While he is away at law school she cherishes hopes of their coming union. But, if you know her life story, you know she never hears from Tom and he marries someone else.

She continues at home doing all the things a single woman in the 1800s would do, with the addition of writing, until her family moves to Bath. She not only doesn’t want to go, but she is furious that the decision was made without even consulting her. She has lived in the rural village of Steventon all her life and hates Bath. She has no choice but to move with her family, but she does not write during the years they live there.

Though she has another romantic encounter or two, she never marries. When her family moves again to more commodious accommodations, she is inspired to pick up her pen again. Her first novel is rejected, which may be an additional reason she stops writing for a while, but eventually, as the world knows, she is finally published. She writes anonymously at first but eventually her secret comes out.

The book ends some years before her death, but the author provides a postscript with details of her remaining years. I much appreciated a section at the back where Moser tells what is fact and fiction in the book. Unfortunately, many of Jane’s letters were destroyed, and though Moser drew from them and even seamlessly wove some into the story, she had to fill in the best she could with what she knew.

I thought I would really like this book since I liked the earlier book of Moser’s and since I generally enjoy Austen’s books. I didn’t dislike it per se, I just didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. Sometimes when you approach a book with high expectations it makes it especially hard for it to live up to them. I felt there was too much information about her family: by the time she’s in her mid-twenties, most of her brothers have either already married or are getting married, and the drama of their relationships wasn’t really what I was reading the book for. Then again, I’m sure she and her parents and sister would have been involved and interested, so it was definitely a part of her life and I can understand its inclusion. I missed her humor: some of her writing has been described as “biting satire” (some of the “bite” goes a little too far for me sometimes),  but some of it has a lighter touch. I just finished listening to Northhanger Abbey and loved some of the humorous interchanges with Henry especially (also the name of her favorite brother) and the way she subtly gets across to the reader some of the things naive Catherine Morland misses in her first foray away from home. I also thought she came across as somewhat negative (downright grouchy sometimes), but near the end she did say that she wrestled with discontentment and was guilty of “the unforgivable act of complaining. For what good comes from that particular vice – for the complainer or her unlucky listener?” Moser says in her afterword that Jane was “witty, wise, discerning, creative, loyal. She was also stubborn, judgmental, insecure, and needy. She was…a lot like us.” She did learn along the way that she could “wallow in unhappiness or make a determined choice to leave it behind and move forward. Life is not fair – nor often understandable. But it is ours to live to the best of our ability.”

I did empathize with what seemed to be an inclination towards introversion: though she loved visiting family and having them visit, there were times she declined certain activities because she just needed some time alone. She “embraces silence and solitude.” Though she attended balls in her younger years, she seemed to be more of a homebody later on.

So…upon reflection I guess I did appreciate more from it than I thought. 🙂 That’s one thing reviews are good for – going back over the story and trying to put it all into perspective. I did enjoy her more at the end of the book than at the beginning or middle and appreciated what she learned about contentment and life and finding one’s place.

And I loved the cover!

One last note that I especially liked: when one reviewer seems to portray Jane’s work as “educational,” she says, “I didn’t mean for it to be educational…at least not with any conscious intent.” Her sister Cassandra replies, “Your stories portray true life. In that there is always education.” Amen to that. I think that’s what resonates with us in the books that most appeal to us, no matter the setting: when they depict something of real life and touch our hearts with truth.

Linking to the Austen in August challenge:

Austen in August

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)


Austen in August Challenge

Austen in August

I just saw yesterday, while perusing the What’s on Your Nightstand posts, that Lost Generation Reader is sponsoring an Austen in August reading challenge (HT to Bluerose). As the name indicates, the idea is to read something by or about Jane Austen during the month of August. Since I’ve already started Just Jane, a novelization of her life by Nancy Moser, I’m delighted to be able to jump in without straining much from the other challenges I am participating in this year. I’ll also listen to Northhanger Abbey via audiobook. I have more Austen books both on hand and in my audiobook library, so after I finish these two I’ll decide if I want to add any more.

Book Review: Mansfield Park

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is the “poor relation” who helps to relieve her family’s financial woes by going to live with a more prosperous aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, when she is ten. Her other aunt, widowed Mrs. Norris, lives near the Bertrams and has more influence with the family than Lady Bertram. Sir Thomas Bertram is imposing and, though not unkind, neither is he warm. Mrs. Norris feels it her duty to constantly keep Fanny in her “place.” Fanny’s female cousins, Mariah and Julia, are selfish, spoiled, and vain and interact little with her. Her oldest cousin Tom takes little notice, but cousin Edmund sympathizes with her and helps her find ways to learn and to interact. Fanny is quiet, shy, “finding something to fear in every person and place,” but eventually the family decides that, “though far from clever, she showed a tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble.”

The family continues on this way for years until their neighbor’s younger sister and brother, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to town for an extended visit. Both are bright, witty, vivacious, and personable, and the young people –except for Fanny — soon become best friends. Fanny’s high regard for Edmund has become secret love over the years, but Edmund, who is planning to join the clergy, begins to fall for Mary, who has no use for the clergy and tries to talk him into changing to a profession where he can “distinguish” himself. Fanny begins to see some of Mary’s flaws, but Edmund is willing to excuse them. Meanwhile Henry, who has been showering attention on both the Bertram sisters, begins to show a decided favor not towards unattached Julia, but rather to her engaged sister. Thus the stage is set for the character of each one to be displayed in the ensuing conflicts.

I’ll leave the plot there for the discovery of those who have not yet read the book, but I did want to discuss a few other aspects of the book.

In the introductory notes of this edition as well as the introduction to the recent Masterpiece Classic version on PBS, there seemed to be an almost apologetic tone that shy, quiet Fanny is the hero of the story rather than vivacious and witty Mary. Amanda Claybaugh, who wrote the introductory notes, writes that “Fanny differs not merely from Mary, but also from our most basic expectations of what a novel’s protagonist should do and be. In Fanny, we have a heroine who seldom moves and seldom speaks, and never errs or alters.” I am not the expert Ms. Claybaugh is, but that is not my impression at all. We’re shown many of Fanny’s inner thoughts, and I find the conflict is in Fanny’s staying true to her moral core despite everyone else’s failure to varying degrees. Edmund says of Fanny at one point that she “is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent.” She is far from self-righteous and ungracious, however, and though morally she does not change, she does mature and grow. Though her nature remains shy and reticent and fearful, she begins to overcome it or act in spite of it in situations like heading a ball in her cousins’ absence and standing up to Sir Thomas when he wants her to marry someone whom she not only does not love but in whom she sees moral flaws that she cannot expound on.

In almost all of Jane Austen’s books, she subtly points out the ironies of life in her time. Perhaps the irony here is the truth that though Fanny lacks the characteristics that are highly valued in her setting — wit, wealth, and worldliness — she possesses qualities far more valuable in her moral goodness, graciousness, insight, and steadfastness.

I enjoyed this book very much and found it very readable. I highly recommend it.

This completes my reading Jane Austen’s novels. I had read Emma back in college and would love to revisit her, but all of the rest I have read over the last couple of years in a quest to catch up on some of the classics I somehow missed along the way. I know I will enjoy reading these books again in the future.

Book Review: Northanger Abbey

northanger.jpgNorthanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s first book completed for publication, but the last to be published, with Persuasion, her last book, after her death. It had been sold to a publisher but never published. Eventually Jane bought it back for the same sum for which she sold it, but it was shelved for years.

Northanger Abbey, especially the first part, is a parody of gothic novels popular at the time, with their requisite ingredients of horror, castles, secrets, and villains.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine” is the opening line of the book, and the first several paragraphs expand on the reasons for such a supposition: she is not particularly beautiful nor remarkably intelligent or diligent, and her family, while well enough off, is not rich. All about her is rather ordinary. Her major asset is her trusting, innocent, good-natured heart.

Her adventure begins when she goes to Bath with neighbors and friends of the family, the Allens. Yet it doesn’t seem very adventurous at first: Mrs. Allen is obsessed with fashion and can’t seem to discuss much else, and they know no one in all the crowded places they go. Finally they run into the Thorpes, old friends of the Allens, and one the the Thorpe daughters, Isabella, is a friend of Catherine’s brother, James. And then Catherine and Mrs. Allen unexpectedly meet an affable and pleasant Mr. Henry Tilney at a ball, who engages Catherine for the evening.

Isabella’s brother, John, is a rather boorish young man who pursues Catherine, but Catherine is not interested. Isabella, after becoming engaged to Catherine’s brother, becomes interested in Henry’s brother when he flirts with her. Henry’s father, General Tilney, mistakenly believes Catherine to be richer than she is, and therefore invites her to Northanger Abbey, the family’s home, for a visit. Catherine is delighted, both because of her growing interest in Henry and friendship with his sister, Eleanor, but also because she longs to have the experience of visiting such a structure as is often found in the gothic novels she loves.

One of the many things she learns, though, is that life is not like those novels, and once her views are shaped by reality, she begins to grow and mature.

I don’t want to go further into the plot for the sake of those who might not have read the book. I found it very enjoyable. It contains Austen’s trademark observations of the social mores of her time, though not quite as ironically or satirically as her later books, plus a spirited defense of novel reading as well as a caution against the wrong kinds, with the lesson Catherine learns not to let her imagination, influenced by highly unlikely tales, get away from her. Catherine also learns one of the most painful lessons of maturity, that, while it is generally good to have a trusting heart, there are people not worthy of that trust. (Update: I just finished listening to this via audiobook 4/22/13, and I can’t believe I thought this book less ironic or satirical. It fairly sparkles with both irony and satire, but in a fun rather than a put-down sarcastic way.)

The particular copy I bought is a Barnes and Noble publication, complete with footnotes and endnotes, which were often helpful but sometimes unnecessary and distracting. The introductory notes I felt were better read after the novel than before, especially if one has not read the book yet, as too much is given away.

In the back of the book are a few questions, one of which is “Is there any sign that any of the characters in Northanger Abbey feels sexual desire? Can Austen’s realism be considered complete without this aspect of human relationships.” Good grief, what questions! One of the things I most resent about modern adaptations of classics is the inclusion of sexual scenes, or the spelling out of what had been written with restraint and decorum. The continued popularity of Austen’s books should indicate that an audience can be entertained without going into great sexual detail. Restraint and subtlety are no enemies of realism.

Update: I listened to this story again for the Austen in August challenge in August 2014.

Austen in August

Jane Austen on Masterpiece

I had been wanting to mention that Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theatre) on PBS was going to be showing a series of films based on Jane Austen novels, but Masterpiece can be a mixed bag sometimes, so I thought I’d better watch the first one before mentioning it.

Persuasion was shown this past Sunday night. I taped it and watched it in two parts yesterday.

I mentioned in an earlier review of the novel that Persuasion is my favorite of the Austen books I have read so far, and I loved the 1995 film adaptation with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, so any new version would have a lot to live up to.

I have to say I didn’t like this new version as well. Rupert Penry-Jones made a handsome enough Captain Wentworth, but I couldn’t really see him as a naval captain. Sally Hawkins showed a lot of the nuances of Anne’s feeling perhaps a little more than Amanda Root did, but I felt the latter “blossomed” from the mousy bedraggled Anne into a woman in love and more sure of herself more than the former did. Mary, Anne’s sister, is supposed to be annoying, but this version of her grated to me.

I didn’t like the jumpy camera shots in this production, nor the way Anne kept looking directly at the camera. I especially didn’t like the chopping up of Austen’s narrative, particularly placing Anne’s line that “The one claim I shall make for my own sex is that we love longest, when all hope is gone” at a dinner party in the middle when Wentworth is out of earshot rather than near the end, in a conversation which Wentworth overhears and which leads his to reveal his love for Anne. I know some changes have to occur when adapting a book to film, but placing such a major line out of sequence is jarring and disappointing. I found Anne’s running through the streets trying to catch up to Wentworth near the end to be very uncharacteristic of what a lady’s behavior would have been at that time in that culture, though I know the producers were trying to show that Anne was determined this time to let Wentworth know her feelings. And that was about the worst movie kiss I have ever seen, or at least the worst lead-in to a kiss.

Overall the production felt very rushed. I don’t think 90 minutes can do the story justice.

I much preferred the older introduction to Masterpiece Theatre, with an affable host and a cozy, book-filled room. I suppose the new look is supposed to be glamorous, but I felt the hostess was somewhat stiff.

Still, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. And from what I have read many who were unfamiliar with the story liked it, so perhaps this series will usher in a new generation of Austen fans.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series, which continues Sunday nights through April 6.