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Jane Austen in the 21st Century

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

To most, the mention of Jane Austen conjures up images of a time long passed. We might picture a pastoral English countryside, dresses with Empire line waists and matching bonnets, or surprisingly indelicate gossip surrounding the taking of tea. There, against the backdrop of grand estates, amidst the complex dance within the rules of society, we find the essence of traditional Regency romance. Thoughts of a sultry Mr. Darcy or a kind-hearted Colonel Brandon tempt our imagination.

However, upon entering the pages in search of this world, many modern readers find the slow pace, minimal plot, and lack of action burdened further by cumbersome language. There might even be resistance against a context in which women carry little power and the idle rich are glamorized.

This begs the question: are Miss Austen’s works hamstrung by these aspects, or are they still alluring to us today?

Firstly, I think it is safe to say that romance, in all its forms, will never fade from popularity. There is an eternal attraction towards the struggles of the lovers. We root for them because we seek success in our own relationships. We must believe in the possibility of a happy ending, even if we know it is not always attainable.

The relationships of Austen’s characters, whether they be lovers, friends, or family, are central to her themes. They are rich and varied, some somber, some humorous. Human nature is explored at length: our motives, our principles, our weaknesses. Who can forget the persistently clumsy marriage proposal by Mr. Collins? Or Mr. Darcy’s horror at finding the “inferior” Miss Eliza’s eyes irresistible? We are teased into liking Mr. Wickham and later despising him. And then there are Mrs. Bennett’s “nerves.” It is no surprise, with characters such as these, that Pride and Prejudice has remained a sturdy favorite amongst fans of Jane Austen.

Perhaps our frenetic 21st century lifestyle does not encourage us to ponder these elements sufficiently. If we were inclined to be more fully connected to our fellow humans, we might better appreciate the steady exploration of their natures as revealed in Miss Austen’s works.

As for the antiquated ideals of marriage and the precarious position of women, Austen’s writings are an encouraging reminder of how far we have come. I suspect we are able to enjoy the scenarios her characters find themselves in all the more because they do not affect us so intimately. We are free to commiserate with our heroine without sharing her fears, while Austen’s intended audience would have been living the reality of such concerns. Consider Jane Bennett’s words to her sister: “They may wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride.”

Of course, socio-economic inequality is by no means a thing of the past. Class prejudice, snobbery, financial constraints, limitations in which dreams we dare strive for: these issues are all very much still with us. And these only prove how relevant Austen’s themes are today.

Unfortunately, the daunting prospect of wading through wordy prose and dated dialogue is too much for some. This alone puts Austen’s genius out of reach for many.

As such, the movie adaptations have gone a long way to bringing Austen’s works to life again. Since 1995, when Colin Firth and Emma Thompson charmed us with their performances in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility respectively, the big and little screens alike have re-awoken a delight in things Austen.

Dialogue that might feel heavy to the reader is livened up by the actors’ body language. Austen’s subtle humor and sharp wit is made more dynamic through the interpretation by a skilled cast. A time in history that was obvious only to Austen’s contemporaries is made real to the modern audience. In short, the on-screen adaptations have made Jane Austen’s works more accessible, not only to her original fans, but to a whole new generation who might never read a single word of her books.

However, the visual fanfare and faster pace of the movies threaten to completely usurp Miss Austen’s original texts. One might ask whether her books offer anything that reward the reader for the greater effort demanded of them?

The answer to many is, sadly, no. A few hours of escapism into a world of romance and costume is sufficient for most. They have no desire to pursue the deeper resonance offered by her complete script. But, for those who would dare, Austen’s full texts offer much.

Despite the abundant visuals of dress and furnishings, the screen adaptations only go some way toward granting us full immersion into the Regency world. Austen’s life, specifically, was to a large degree an intellectual one. The pace and manner of her writing draws us into the word games that must have provided a fair amount of verbal sport to her peers. By slowing down and considering her characters’ lengthy conversations without the distraction of garments and music, we are better able to experience the interchange as they would have. It was a time when handwritten letters were a daily occurrence, and gossip was an essential form of entertainment. Reading through Austen’s voice, rather than watching a heavily edited summary, gives us a better first-hand experience of Austen’s time.

Absence of narration is another loss felt by those who neglect to read the books. So much of the subtle changes in the characters is developed through the narrator’s voice. Without it, the characters in the movies seem to undergo jarringly abrupt alterations in behavior.

Perhaps these things are of little consequence to those who limit their Austen experience to the screen. Perhaps it is enough that some measure of her brilliant skill is enjoyed and not utterly lost to an audience too impatient to take in the fullness of her lively wit.

To those encouraged to tackle her writings for the first time, I urge you to persist in your endeavor. Before you close your mind to the idea of enjoying her books, consider Miss Austen’s own words: “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”

Happy reading!

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