The first line of Pride and Prejudice — “It’s a truth universally acknowledged” — must be used in the most cliched manner possible to introduce anything even remotely related to the iconic work. Now that’s out of the way, in the spirit of approaching Valentine’s Day, I have no choice but to address the mother of all date movies — Jane Austen.
She’s become something of a token in the world of slightly well-read adolescent girls, added as a favorite author on social networking sites or referenced in teen literature. Let’s be serious — I am one of those slightly well-read (albeit now no longer adolescent) girls. Deign to ask many of these Austen enthusiasts about their favorite author and often you’ll find their love stems from the 2005 film adaptation. In director Joe Wright’s artistic vision, all the characters get glossed up, the score sweeps us across perfectly rustic landscaping and we spend two hours watching beautiful people fall in love across classes and dance. Sure, it’s pretty. But is that really what Austen was conveying? I implore you to forget what you think you know about Jane Austen.
One of her earliest works was a satirical account, The History of England, which mocks the trendy historical writing of her day. Another work, Northanger Abbey, skewers popular Gothic novels, the literary fodder of the Regency era akin to today’s Dan Brown novels. She wanted her readers to laugh. Granted, some humor may be lost in the nearly 200-year aging process, but overall her works have aged as gracefully as a book form of Helen Mirren. I recommend the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for a taste of the tongue in cheek yet at times sincere type of attitude Austen aimed for. Added bonus — it also has Colin Firth as Darcy.
Austen wrote about real people. Underneath the extreme wealth, Darcy is a well-crafted, timeless depiction of the socially awkward guy. Besides her ability to craft likable, real characters, she also showcased those we love loathing — from snobby society girls to pesky suitors, shameful relatives to conceited blowhards. Her works remain well-read and fresh not because they are heartbreaking romances, but because they are real depictions of middle-class life and love, which has not managed to change that much. She’s not exactly radical, but her female characters are intelligent and sensible, which challenged to conceptions of her time. We don’t all get a massive mansion at the end of our stories, but what’s literature if it can’t afford for a little bit of harmless escapism?
If you haven’t read any of her books, do it. They are relevant stand-alone works, but they also influence modern literature and even films, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless. Try Pride and Prejudice first and go from there. If you have a strong aversion to 19th-century literature, check out the BBC film adaptations, they can suffice for a little cultural education if that’s all you desire. Emma is a better second entree of Austen’s works. It’s about a stubborn, silly socialite and her disastrous attempts at matchmaking. She’s so crazy that she’s actually a lot more fun to read about than Lizzy, who induces Darcy-envy in nearly everyone. After that I suggest Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, in that order.
Don’t sit in your Harbin room or Henle suite this Valentine’s Day with an Austen novel. That’s not what Jane is about. Go out, live your life and when in doubt, remember: WWJD — what would Jane do, that is.
Elizabeth Garbitelli is a junior in the College and is currently studying abroad in Oxford, England. She can be reached at [email protected] Literary Snarknotes appears every other Friday in the guide.