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Austen Strikes Again – mangled thoughts on _Becoming Jane_

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Jane Austen strikes again! – or so the news, Hollywood and our collective response to the two would have us assume. Becoming Jane, a new faux-biopic on Austen’s life has been released to theatres, and it is consuming headlines faster than Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth could make us turn our heads (and their own) to their beautiful looks in 1995.

At issue is Austen’s popularity and whether or not it is well-founded (whatever that means) or if it is spurred on by the marketing and PR of the culture industry. Austen’s texts have been adapted an inordinate number of times to both television and film, and now, just like Shakespeare, has had a semi-historical, almost-biographical, pseudo-factual biography put to film. The critics may despair at the large number of inaccuracies in the film, but it is sure to beat the box office and keep our hearts warmed and minds entertained for anywhere between ninety minutes to two hours. Becoming Jane may or may not be your slice of apple pie, but it has already become firmly ensconced in the reception history of Austen and the Austen cannon. The film must not be discredited, but rather considered and evaluated.

Martin Levin, of Globe Books, recently evaluated not only Becoming Jane but the current go-around of Austen in society, which he refers to as “Austenania”. Notwithstanding his own concerns about the facts and the stories and what actually makes it to screen in Becoming Jane, it appears that Levin cannot allow himself to fully appreciate the concept of literary and historiographical adaptation. Although he acknowledges that “Historical and literary figures are now fair novelistic game. Henry James alone inspired three substantial novels in one season – by Colm Tóibín, Allan Hollinghurst and David Lodge. But Austen has out-noveled them all; not merely she, but her characters, run riot in their post-fade afterlife.”, he is still disappointed to find that many Austen adaptations and renderings ultimately miss “the delicately balanced combination of superb wit and moral seriousness” that we see in the original.

There are several problems with considering an adaptation or a rendering directly against the original, though. First and foremost, the writers of “Austenania” are not the writers of Austen’s own texts, and are therefore writing for a different purpose and different audience in mind. Critics of Austen who want to read Austen should simply stick to Austen. (That may appear short-sighted, but I find such criticism to be short-sighted in the first place.) Authors of Austenania do not share all the concerns that Austen may have, and therefore will not likely raise as many delicate issues such as gender roles or the development of an English middle class against the demise of an aristocracy in their texts. The economics of our late capitalist society (to assuage all the Jamesonian readers out there) have also drastically altered our culture and its cultural products. Although artists have always had to look toward an economic benefit through their commissions, many Austenania writers today are thoroughly ensconced in a business model that asks for and expects to see certain tropes in the text. Wit and moral seriousness, sadly, do not sell as well as a romantic buildup toward matrimonial bliss. Writers and editors (as well as readers/buyers – but that is an entry for another day) ought not to be blamed for the corporate creative business model they find themselves in. Writing, for most, is not an art, but a means toward a paycheque.

Putting aside the economic questions, one must also consider if there is anything inherently wrong with admiring or reverencing the original by way of its rendered adaptations. One need not be an Austen scholar to understand that no adapted film or rendered text will trump Austen’s own texts for the pure study of Austen. And similarly, an unlearned fan will know well enough to turn to the original texts – if it pleases him or her – if he or she is looking for “the real thing.” Adaptations ask us to reconsider the text and the theme by modifying the wheel. The “real thing” will always exist on library shelves, but a director’s adaptation can offer a startling interpretation of an old theme, such as the innovative adaption of Emma into Clueless in 1996. Although Becoming Jane may not perfectly fit the adaptation model due to the historical inaccuracies of a living person, it remains nonetheless a piece of art which asks us to reconsider certain themes – Austen and Austen’s work – as well as the original texts. Fans of Austen – be they learned academics or just Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway fanatics – are well-served by adaptations and renderings which help keep Austen herself current, and not simply four of five books on our library shelves.


Addendum: I recently found this link which reminds us that the publishing world is an industry unto itself and still as concerned bottom lines as it is with final chapters. Just as Becoming Jane has been criticised for being “sexed up” to help the box office, so too has Wordsworth Editions been criticised for photoshopping the only image of Jane Austen for its latest edition of her works in anticipation of the film’s release.

You are commodified.

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Written by mitchellirons

August 20, 2007 at 9:03 pm

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