LIFESTYLE

Becoming Jane: How Austen Transformed Into A Chick Lit Icon

18/07/2017 7:46 PM IST
Getty / HuffPost
Getty / HuffPost

Jane Hayes hearts Mr. Darcy. No, really ― she has a life-size cutout of Colin Firth, in character as the Jane Austen hero, standing in her apartment. She’d rather watch him fall in love with Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet for the thousandth time than make out with her own date. She has “Darcy was here” spelled out in blocky letters over her bed. But the way we know for sure is that, on the 2013 “Austenland” movie poster, Jane (Keri Russell) holds up a tote bag that reads “I ❤︎ Mr. Darcy.”

Two hundred years after her untimely death, this is what we think of when we think of Jane Austen. Darcy-themed T-shirts. Lizzie Bennet action figures. Colin Firth in a soaking-wet top. Lonely women who nurse visions of Regency elegance and old-fashioned courtship. Movies in which studly men profess undying love to beautiful women in the midst of astonishingly cinematic rainstorms.

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To those who have a passing familiarity with Austen, this, no doubt, makes perfect sense. In our cultural consciousness, the author stands for decorous, chaste courtship; rags-to-riches romance; elegant ballgowns and gallant suitors who invite eligible maidens to dance rather than Netflix and chill. She represents an escapist, sentimental fantasy structured around specific female desires, which makes some passionately devoted to her and others disdainful.

But to others ― critics, scholars and many readers ― this whole idea of Austen is wrong. This conception glosses over her pointed satire, which often critiqued the social sphere she depicted. It also ignores Austen’s own skepticism about unbridled romantic sentiment. Northanger Abbey, one of her least popular novels, overtly parodied the heaving melodrama of Gothic romance novels popular in her time. But now those novelists, like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, have been largely forgotten, and Austen, who mocked their genre, seems to embody it in the popular imagination.

How did we get here, to this state of simultaneous Austen-mania and Austen-disdain? How did Jane Austen become the Jane Austen we know today?

Jane, The Realist

Austen may not have been the poster child for romance back when she began publishing her books, but scholars have noticed a bifurcation in her reader response from the very beginning: Some read her for a bit of escapism and love stories, and some enjoyed the complexity and wit of her narratives. “I think that for many readers in the eighteen-teens, Austen’s books were seen as typical novelistic fare. And novels were not a particularly prestigious literary form at this moment,” Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University, told HuffPost in an email. “That said, there were from the start especially discerning readers who recognized that these novels were, in their quiet way, a rather dramatic break from many of the norms for fiction writing.”

Though Austen was working in a less-than-respectable form at the time, her books were viewed seriously by critics, who admired her observation of social and familial dynamics, her nimble prose and her psychologically complete characters. At the time, they were hardly on the frivolous end of the spectrum. “Historically, Austen’s books have not been viewed as ‘chick lit,’ that is, as novels occupied with subjects like marriage and love, subjects which are supposed to please and interest women,” Karen Bloom Gevirtz, associate professor of English and co-director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Seton Hall University, told HuffPost.

In a time when many novels featured far more fantastical and over-the-top narratives ― the popular Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho, which featured an unscrupulous Italian nobleman, a remote castle, a number of precipitous deaths and a very weepy heroine ― Austen’s stories of ordinary Englishmen and -women courting at country dances and in drawing rooms were on the restrained side.

In a contemporaneous review of Emma, a critic (speculated by scholars to have been Sir Walter Scott) admiringly, and humorously, contrasts Austen’s work with the overwrought romances of most popular novels of the time, which typically starred a heroine who “was regularly exposed to being forcibly carried off like a Sabine virgin by some frantic admirer” and rarely managed to evade “masked ruffians, an insidious ravisher, a cloak wrapped forcibly around her head, and a coach with the blinds up driving she could not conjecture whither.” Emma, on the other hand, keeps “close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life.” Austen, he gushes, “has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events.”

Jane, The Escapist

Initially, Austen broke with novel-writing conventions by writing everyday stories rather than escapist ones. But something happened in between then and now: 200 years passed. The everyday life of the minor gentry in early 19th century England no longer seems like a commonplace setting to Austen’s readers ― it’s become exotic through distance. The heroine of the 2008 miniseries “Lost in Austen,” jaded bank clerk and Austen fanatic Amanda Price, doesn’t see Pride and Prejudice as “common incidents” from “the ordinary walks of life.” To her, it’s a world apart ― a better, more romantic world. As she explains it to her mother, “I love the manners and language and the courtesy. It’s become part of who I am and what I want  [...] I’m saying, mum, that I have standards.” 

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But it’s not just the sepia-toned filter through which we now see Austen novels that changes the way we interpret her stories. Though the author subverted conventions of the Gothic romances of her day, she didn’t exactly blow it up ― she satirized it within the confines of a marriage plot narrative. “The novels certainly feature heroines who feel acutely and suffer (generally in silence) because of love,” pointed out Lynch. Amidst the satire, Austen also speaks in a “psychological idiom that makes us feel, almost as though as it were our own, the experience of melancholy or distressed heroines like Anne Elliot or Elinor Dashwood.” 

In short, Austen’s empathetic portrayals of women in love are just as powerful as her caustic wit. The entire plot of each book hinges on at least one potential love match, featuring well-developed, charming heroes and heroines, which makes it easy to engage with them on the level of a romance novel. The romantic angle of Austen is easier to pick up on, and to replicate, than her social commentary.

“Austen’s social representation is actually quite hard to interpret,” explained Lynch. ”[S]he’s so subtle ― and that subtlety leaves much room for disagreement.” The love stories, on the other hand, are pretty straightforward, not to mention less controversial. “Because it’s so easy to empty her work of its sharp social, political and economic criticism,” Gevirtz told HuffPost, “an Austen adaptation can please a wide variety of viewers.”

It’s little wonder that her most well-loved and frequently adapted works today, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, feature the particularly swoon-inducing tales of lively young women who find themselves unexpectedly in love with strong, if moody, men. “The Cinderella story dimension of [Pride and Prejudice] is probably of perennial appeal,” said Lynch, “and the worst adaptations/reboots really pick up on that.” 

Jane, The Hollywood Star

These are love stories that transfer easily to the screen, where we can watch Lizzie and Darcy bicker and flirt and reluctantly fall for each other. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, slots neatly into a romantic comedy template that predated Austen (see: “Much Ado About Nothing”). In comparison to hectic Gothic and sprawling Victorian novels, her relatively compact, universally appealing plots were perfect for film adaptation. Plus, as Gevirtz notes, “Austen’s work is also market-tested. Adaptations of her novels sell well, so an adaptation is a pretty safe bet.”

And so it has been adapted ― quite a few times, with varying degrees of liberality. For Pride and Prejudice, there’s the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Ehle and Firth; a 2005 film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen; and looser adaptations like the “Lost in Austen” miniseries, in which a modern woman is whisked into the events of the novel and has her own romance with Darcy; “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” an adaptation of a Helen Fielding novel that modernized Pride and Prejudice; and “Bride and Prejudice,” a Bollywood version directed by Gurinder Chadha. And those are just some of the best-known adaptations. Emma and Sense and Sensibility have also been adapted into beloved films (respectively starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Thompson), and have been the bases for contemporary rom-coms (respectively, “Clueless” and “From Prada to Nada”).

As these screen versions proliferate, film has increasingly become the mode through which people encounter Austen’s work. “Although adapting the novels as screen romances goes back at least to MGM’s 1940 film of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ it’s become a particularly intense cultural practice since the mid-1990s,” Gevirtz told HuffPost. Even the versions lauded as the most faithful, however, can’t replicate the experience of reading her novels ― and essential aspects of her genius are easily lost in translation. “Film is a very different medium than novelist prose, so it can’t get close to the stylistic subtleties of [Austen]’s work, the irony that keeps the reader on her toes from one sentence to the next,” said Lynch.

The dialogical humor only comprises part of the biting, revealing comedy of the novels, which is often driven by Austen’s drily observant narrator ― which is typically the first thing to go in a film version. “The narrator in particular can be difficult to establish with a camera,” noted Gevirtz, “and although some productions use voice-overs or particular filming techniques, it’s not the same.”

As with any adaptation, filmmakers have necessarily made choices as to which subplots to trim, which themes to emphasize and what tone to take. “The movie adaptations,” Lynch told HuffPost, with a few exceptions, “tend to stress the romance above all.” Movies like the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice,” with its clifftop contemplations and rainswept proposal scene, play up the emotional turmoil of thwarted love rather than the sly wit that dominates the novel.

The novels’ association with their generally sappy film adaptations has only fed Austen’s image as a purveyor of insubstantial chick lit. “While Austen’s novels are Great Books, the film adaptations are often seen by scholars as sentimental and frivolous,” writes scholar Pamela Demory. It seems an unbridgeable divide, but the result, argues Gevirtz, has been a shift in how we see Austen herself. “The category of film used to adapt Austen’s novels has affected the general perception of the books,” she told HuffPost. 

For one thing, as the films comprise an increasingly large part of our Austen diet, we begin to weave images and moods of the movies into our cultural idea of the books. Take one famous example: There’s no scene, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr. Darcy emerges, sopping wet, from a pond. Nor is there a scene in which he and Elizabeth encounter each other amid a rainstorm, drenched from head to toe. And yet, sexy-wet Darcy has become almost inextricable from canonical Darcy. In “Lost in Austen,” Amanda insists that she’s not “not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants, okay?” Instead, she’s shown reveling in a dog-eared copy of the book. Nonetheless, when she’s transported into Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy indeed emerges moistly from a pond before her ― at her request. 

“The young, vast, lucrative market for items like ‘Keep calm and think of Mr. Darcy’ mugs and ‘I [heart] Mr. Darcy’ T-shirts suggests,” said Gevirtz, “that [casting the novels as chick lit] is working very well indeed.” Always an appealing romantic lead, handsome and warm-hearted despite his forbidding demeanor, his brooding depth and unquenchable passion have been drawn out in film adaptations. Darcy’s emergence as a delectable, crushworthy celebrity has positioned Pride and Prejudice as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for straight women rather than a social commentary.

Biopics of Austen herself have borrowed from the romantic plots of her books to craft a portrait of an author inspired and motivated by her own heartbreak. Gevirtz pointed to “Becoming Jane,” a 2007 Anne Hathaway flick, which suggests Austen suffered an early heartbreak which inspired the love story of Pride and Prejudice. “The trailer for [‘Becoming Jane’] urged, ‘Discover Jane Austen’s untold romance, that would become the inspiration for her greatest love stories,’” said Gevirtz. “The facts of Austen’s life, however, do not support a narrative of a romantically-disappointed Jane endlessly seeking solace by compulsively rewriting her ruined romance with a happy ending.” Rather, there’s plenty of evidence that she was a gifted and dedicated artist who honed her craft for many years, beginning in her youth. By recasting the author as a lovelorn woman dwelling on her own loss, argues Gevirtz, we allow the novels to be “reduced to love stories and nothing but love stories.” 

Even the more daring, genre-bending spoofs of Austen’s novels play into this idea. The popular parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ― both a book and a film ― draws its humor from juxtaposing the conventions of horror with those of the genteel romance novel: The marriage-minded Bennet sisters also, incongruously, fight zombies with well-honed combat skills. By parodying Pride and Prejudice’s marriage plot, author Seth Grahame-Smith empties the novel of, or at least distracts from, its own, more subtle, satire. Instead, it’s a blank romance-novel canvas on which to plaster jokes. As Jennifer Malia put it in Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, “what many reviewers and readers found appealing” about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was how “the unexpected, nonsensical zombie plot interrupts the seriousness of the romance plot.”

It’s hard to spoof a satire, but a romance novel: That’s easy.

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Jane Contains Multitudes

The final stage in Austen chick lit-ification, however, is perhaps the most infuriating: After putting out endless adaptations of her novels which downplay her social commentary and overplay her bodice-heaving sentimentality, Hollywood mocks women for consuming them. Austen spin-offs often portray women disdainfully for enjoying her, and for romanticizing a wet-shirted hero and an escapist love story.

The most famous fictional Austen groupies fit an unflattering mold: lonely, obsessive, disconnected from reality. Jane of “Austenland” has her most meaningful relationship with that cardboard cutout of Firth, until she finally takes herself on a vacation to an immersive Austen experience ― a manor where Janeites dress in period garb and flirt politely with the footmen. There, at last, she falls in true love with her very own Darcy, surrounded by other silly fans who nurture unrealistic visions of woman-centered love. Amanda, the heroine of “Lost in Austen,” escapes the daily grind of her job and her unfaithful boyfriend by rereading Pride and Prejudice and dreaming that her life could be as romantic as Austen’s England. Then, somehow, she’s magically whisked into the world of the book, where she has an opportunity to fall in love with Darcy herself.

These spin-offs, too, are chick flicks, and so they end happily for the heroines ― but in the process, they caricature Austen fans as interested in nothing but finding the perfect man and the perfect love story. This condescension also infects the object of their affection: Austen. If women are silly for loving her, what does that say about her art? Nothing particularly flattering.

The relentless churn of Austen adaptations, which increasingly allude to each other rather than the original work, has spawned a new idea of the author and her fans, a smaller understanding of her novels that has grown big enough to overshadow their real complexities. In Austen’s current persona, two troubling trends have fed off of each other: The idea that works by and about women concern themselves exclusively with the self-serious pursuit of love and other female-coded interests like fashion, and the idea that works concerned with such feminine interests are trivial and foolish. When we defend Austen by saying she’s more than that, we risk reinforcing the idea that chick lit is dumb; when we we defend her by saying chick lit is worthwhile, we risk reinforcing the idea that her work fits neatly into the genre rather than acknowledging her unique genius.

But both are true, and Austen is worth defending on both fronts. As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber convincingly argued this week, Austen’s deftly handled marriage plots offer a relatively empowering path through a patriarchal realm that continues to resonate today: a marital partnership based on mutual love and respect. It makes sense that this Austen was a forerunner to a chick flick genre in which women and their desires take center stage. Much of the delicate irony and layered social commentary, however, don’t make it to the screen alongside the love stories ― and this precise, observant wit is what originally elevated her work above other marriage plot novels of the time. The germ of today’s chick flicks lay in Austen’s oeuvre from the beginning, but today it often feels like we’ve forgotten everything else the books hold. A world in which we only appreciate a fraction of her talent is a dimmer world. 

Two hundred years after her death, it feels only right to celebrate both Austen’s cultural ascendancy, which continues to balloon, and the genius of her novels, which hasn’t changed or diminished in two centuries. Her loyal fans tend to struggle with embracing all of these aspects ― the schmaltz and the satire, the lowbrow and the highbrow. “I don’t think we’re good at sharing Austen with people who think differently from us about what the novels mean,” said Lynch. “A lot of us take those novels too personally.” Maybe we should be more generous. Then again, her readers’ passionate sense of ownership, and the multiplicity of ways in which we read her work, might be the most profound possible testament to her art’s enduring power.