Monday, October 12, 2009

Jane Austen spreads her tentacles

Jane Austen’s back. Sunday nights, on your telly. And you miss Emma at your peril, because on Monday morning when you get to work you’ll very likely be probed on the details of the inconsequential plot and the jaw-droppingly lush production values.

Probed. Mmmmm. Now there’s a word. It’s quite a Jane Austen word, actually. She’d probably have found a way of slipping it in somewhere, mistress as she was of the double entendre. For it was the sainted Jane who describes, in Emma, Mrs Goddard’s school, “where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity”.

And it was the same Jane, at the beginning of Northanger Abbey, who wrote: “Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

She was a bit of a naughty one on the side, was Jane. And if you were made to study her works at school, trying to spot those fnarr-fnarr moments was probably one of the few things that kept you going (oo-er missus) among all the fie-ing and wherefore-ing and for shame-ing.

And while we’re on about it, can anyone explain, in words of fewer than three syllables, what’s the difference between Sense and Sensibility?

From the aforegoing you may have picked up a certain ambivalence in this writer’s feelings towards Miss Austen and her works.

The problem is that everything in her world seems just a bit too perfect. Especially, it must be said, in the new TV adaptation of Emma.

Just look at the job titles in the credits at the end of each episode. They don’t just have Gaffers and Best Boys (stop it, Jane). They have Lawn Manicurists. They have Daffodil Wranglers. They have Electric Fan Operators to blow the clouds away from the sun so that early 19th-century England looks spick and span for the American market.

All right, you say. Behind the romantic escapism there’s acerbic social commentary, incisive characterisation, a dash of irony thrown in for good measure. And those double entendres. True enough, and there’s not much wrong with that.

But what grates slightly is that these days the escapism has completely overshadowed the wicked wit. The original characters have married and danced a minuet into the sunset, and we’re left with a candy-coated mother lode for TV and film producers to mine repeatedly.

Without having to pay royalties.

Then there’s the Bath connection. True enough, Jane Austen lived here for four or five years. But Bath wasn’t her favourite part of the world, and she had a fairly unhappy time while she was here.

Yet walk up Gay Street on a sunny Saturday and everyone’s toting an “I Heart Mr Darcy” bag or a “Kiss Me Quick I Bear A Passing Resemblance To Keira Knightley” hat. A bit too ironic, perhaps, even for Jane.

Maybe parody is the cure for an Austen overdose. High on the best-seller list at the moment is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which starts off: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” And goes on in that vein for two or three hundred pages.

On second thoughts, perhaps you’re better off sticking with the real thing. It’s so much more comforting, really.

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