Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Jane Austen Celebration

For the past year, I have been a life-member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). I have attended exactly three meetings: one chapter meeting in New York, and two Annual General Meetings (Philadelphia in 2009 and Portland, OR last month).

With so few meetings, you might wonder why I decided to become a life member. The answer is simple. JASNA is such fun!

Jane Austen fans from all over the continent, and some other countries from around the globe, gather at the Annual General Meetings to dress, quote, and think about Jane Austen and her six novels (Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility) and her other writings. There were six hundred of us in Portland. As you might expect, there are plenty of English professors and Austen scholars among us, but there are also lots of just plain fans. Many of us dress in Regency-style gowns and waistcoats for a ball of English country dancing to live music on Saturday night. Those dances might look genteel on screen, but some are a real workout. No wonder Regency women carried fans.

Most "Janeites," as Austen aficionados are known, have read all the novels more than once. Some have dissected them for every nuance Jane might have dropped into a scene unnoticed by the casual reader. It is an amazing experience to be among so many who share a passion for the same thing--like being a Trekker at a Star Trek convention, or a nerd at Comic-con.

Some fans came to Austen as youngsters reading their first novel, while others came to it through one of the many movie or television interpretations of the novels. The 1995 A&E/BBC six-episode adaptation of Pride and Prejudice did a lot to inspire 21st-century fans (and enhance Colin Firth's career!). 

Also in 1995, Emma Thompson's film of Sense and Sensibility gained box office (and home video) popularity. It was followed by Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. But these are far from the only recent iterations of Jane Austen novels. PBS did new television versions of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion in 2007-2009 despite the fact that Mansfield Park had been done in 1983 and 1999, Northanger Abbey in 1987, Persuasion in 1960, 1971, and 1995, and Sense and Sensibility in 1971, 1981, in addition to the 1995 film.  Emma has been produced for film or television more than a dozen times since 1932, including the 1995 movie Clueless. PBS did not redo Pride and Prejudice, however. To many Austen fans, the 1995 adaptation has become iconic.

Not to be outdone by Emma, Pride and Prejudice has its own long list of adaptations, including a 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, another BBC version in 1980, a Mormon version of Pride and Prejudice from 2003, Bride and Prejudice: The Bollywood Musical (2004), and a film starring Keira Knightly (2005). And these are just some of those done in English. There have been many more. 

With all of the remakes of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, one could assume they are every Janeite's favorite novels. I was surprised to learn last week that, in fact, in a poll of JASNA members, Persuasion was listed as the favorite of more than any other. Northanger Abbey, Austen's parody of the Gothic novels popular during her lifetime, finished last.

What other novels can we come up with that are made and remade so frequently? It is too bad that Austen died so young--age 41--and left behind only six novels. If she had written more, there would be more good movies being made.

Why are they so popular? The time in which she wrote is so different from today, and roles of women have changed so much over the past two centuries. But the novels are timeless stories about love, wealth, and power. Austen's female protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter) were not docile lambs who would happily be told what to do or how to think by the men around them. They seem as real as the people who are her fans today--thinking, reading women and men who enjoy wit and social commentary, and suffer from all too human foibles. The books give us a window into the society of another time through characters to whom we can realte. And Austen's use of language is nearly musical. Is it a fantasy that everyone once spoke so well?

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of her first publication, Sense and Sensibility, and we JASNA folks will be celebrating it in Fort Worth, Texas. There will be scholarly papers, interesting workshops, and screenings of the Emma Thompson movie. But we're not all staid and proper. The planning committee tells us that there will also be mechanical bull riding, dancing the two-step,  and Texas Hold 'Em instead of whist in the cards room. It looks like it will be another great time for fans of Jane Austen--or those who want to have a good time among excellent company.

Maybe I'll see you there! For more information, see

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