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Archive for February 25th, 2019


Glenn Close at the Oscars tonight: I hope she wins for The Wife

Friends,

Over on another of the many Jane Austen-linked blogs found on the Internet today, Austen Variations, earlier this week Diana Birchall wrote and published a blog about her experiences as an Austen reader and then post-text writer in the social world before and since the Internet: “Throwback Thursday. Her perspective is as someone who has written and published several sequels, and been going to JASNA and the Jane Austen Society of America conferences since the 1980s, well before both the Internet and years crucial to the phenomenal increase in Austen fans, 1995-96, when no less than four Austen films were screened, and two became important sociological events and memories:

1995 serial drama Pride and Prejudice, scripted by Andrew Davies, featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; 1995 Paramount Clueless, directed and scripted by Amy Heckerling; 996 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, featuring her, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet; and two more Emmas, 1996 Miramax, scripted by Douglas McGrath, featuring Gweneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; 1996 BBC, scripted by Andrew Davies, featuring Mark Strong and Kate Beckinsale.

Diana said she began to read Austen in her twenties, she felt almost alone, then by virtue of incessant rereading and writing, developed a knack for imitating Austen’s style (syntax especially), won a prize with this, published her Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma. She depicted a small cosy world, Austen an author for a select few, the audience for sequels small and hardly any any way, and only one movie, the “screwball” comedy MGM’s P&P, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, scripted by Aldous Huxley & Jane Murfin (based on a drawing room comedy by Helene Jerome),featuring Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson and Edna May Oliver. She emphasized the coming of the movies as the crucial watershed transforming the Austen society and the world of sequel writers.


Greer Garson supposed with mud on her dress (gasp!)

I responded this way:

We’ve been friends for many years because of the Internet — since around 1995 when I first joined Austen-l. I started reading Austen around age 12-13, P&P and S&S, and read them many times, until at 15 I graduated to MP and (a Bronte) Jane Eyre, which two I then read many times. Before the Internet life was a vacuum, a vacuity, I stumbled onto NA and Persuasion somehow or other by age 17-19, and was so fond of the first and loved the second; finally it was through college I read Emma, age 21, which I did not like as much. The first book I read on Austen was Elizabeth Jenkins’s biography; and despite going to graduate school, becoming an 18th century scholar, I knew little of the secondary literature beyond a few beloved older close reading scholarly books until after I graduated: Mary Lascelles, Stuart Tuve (Some Words of Jane Austen or a title to this effect); coming onto Austen-l I learned of Considering Mr Collins and as a group we began to read and post about the best criticism and I read many new kinds of criticism I had not known existed before.

As to others I knew about who read Austen before the Internet, well, there was my father …  In college I had been shocked when a majority a people in a required literature class said she was boring. I understood what was happening at the time this way:  they were “dull elves” and couldn’t respond to what they read. Now I realize this response is common and that the way “Austen” has been extended as an agreeable commodity to a large number of paying people is by distorting her.  So I had no context and no access to lists of books I might enjoy truly about her or her books.

It was the Internet, Austen-l that first began my journey into all these — and now I have a wall of such books in my study, and two more rows of books and movies in anothe room, together with translations into Italian and French and a few of the better more original sequels and some of the crap too.

It was through Austen-l I was first led to the rest of her juvenilia: I had read Love & Freindship somehow along the way (and found it hilarious), but now added the unfinished novels and early fragments for the first time.  I bought and read LeFaye’s third edition of Austen’s letters (how disappointing at first) and much more. I began to write about Austen on the Net. And I was invited to write essays for books, reviews, come to conferences, and began to study the calendars underlying Austen’s novels.


My essay “Continent Isolated: Anglo-centricity” was published in this volume of essays published in Italy

As to movies, the ones I knew of were PBS BBC serial dramas; the only one I had watched (only one up to 1995): 1979 P&P by Fay Weldon, featuring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.


Garvie as Elizabeth intertwined with Irene Richards as her beloved Charlotte Lucas

With online used bookstores sites and Amazon in its first phase, and a VHS player (!), around 1996 I began to buy movies and watch them at will on the angelic computer my husband managed for me, I attempted to and wrote five chapters of a book on the Sense and Sensibility movies as refuge. Now I’ve written so many papers, reviews, blogs, have a website, my calendars, postings, and have made some friends in Austen, like yourself.

I also responded to Diana:

I don’t think this is a superficial change we are talking of, for I know that I know so much more about her than I ever could, and approach her differently (for better or worse) because of this new social and publishing access world. For me the watershed is not the movies but the Internet itself which distributes across the world immediately all this material outside of and part of the true context and falsifying distortions of Austen’s books.

Then off the blog, but on one of the listservs where public talk is still far freer and most of the time has less consequences (since only a small subset of people read these and they have no respect or don’t count for jobs, promotions, as publications), janeites@groups.io than anywhere else in the world I know, Diane responded to my comment thus:

Ellen, thanks for responding to my Throwback Thursday post detailing my life in Austen. On Austen Variations, they’ve decided to launch a series of these posts, and I was asked to do the opening post for the not entirely flattering reason that I am the oldest practitioner of Austen pastiche in the group, by a country mile! An eminence grise in a small pond, you might say. I discovered a surprising fount of perspective by doing the exercise, however, and saw that I really had lived through all the changes of an era in Austen, and therefore had something of a story to tell. People have responded to it very thoughtfully and favorably, which made me feel both touched and satisfied.

You and I really have lived our Austen lives – our Internet Austen lives at any rate, of the last 20 years or so – in tandem. Different approaches and areas of concentration, but a similar immersion and passion, each in our own way. Our generation is unique in that we spent half our reading life pre-internet, half afterward, and so we are fairly qualified to judge the merits of each. I think I used to do more immersive deep reading pre-internet, but that might have been my sponge-like youth rather than lack of technology. If some of the totality of that experience diminished, much was gained by internet exposure, and I agree with you that the changes were not superficial at all. The ease of acquiring books, of finding a community, of exchanging ideas, those are not small things.

I imagine others have similar stories to tell…

Diana

And I replied on Janeites@groups.io, sending a copy to Austen-l (nowadays just a dead place: people put copies of texts from Janeites, and advertise their books and blogs there – what happened is the listowner refused to moderate and so quarrels became abusive):

They are not small things. I’d like to add that the experience insofar as true enjoyment of Austen goes is ambiguous. You say that you don’t do the immersive reading you used to. That’s not sponge-like youth, but a deep gratifying encounter that is at the core of literary studies. It is so much a given that we are supposed to be for social life and we ourselves enjoy being with other people and seeing new places or going somewhere. And it gratifies egos to have books published, and see Austen gives us these characters and stories to play with, and an audience familiar with them, but not most of them deeply engaged with Austen’s text — many appear not to understand her very well – and money is made, hotels happy. There are only 6 books finished and a majority of people reading them insist on seeing them as justifying the world if you bring out into the public realm the serious questions the books debate.

What is there more loathsome than celebrity worship — alas, I rather suspect Austen would have hated it out of snobbery as much as anything else, and understandable resentment given how she was treated as a spinster. Austen is worst hit than authors with many many books, than authors with much smaller followings, than male authors. They have their coteries, their exclusive clubs, institutional re-enforcements.

You see, gentle reader, I keep in my cherished memories another perspective where I know much of all of this ruins, gets in the way of reading and pleasure with Austen — associated with her are now abrasive, status-seeking, moneyed (or not if you’ve not got it so you are excluded) holidays, at these places cliques grow up. Some of the movies try to convey aspects of her book but many ride roughshod and there are film-makers who make famous Austen films who clearly dislike her (Maggie Wadey who made the 2007 MP, the 1986 NAloathes Fanny to the point she cursed her), Joe Wright turns Austen into Lawrence. I get so busy with this internet life which brings on papers, projects and so on I have not been able to make time for Maggie Lane’s Growing Old with Austen — Lane makes sure she is upbeat on the surface and she is not Austen, but hers is the kind of book which extends our enjoyment because it’s an accurate, deeply felt intelligent close reading.

There is a problem. One Janeites@groups.io Nancy Mayer started the tired (yes tired) question of how we are to feel about Lady Russell and before you know it you have the usual justifications of the anguish and agony that woman caused both Anne and Wentworth (of course he was hurt, of course he stayed away); it was not his or Anne’s fault: it was Lady Russell’s, only in small part Anne’s (for being so docile) and Wentworth’s (for being so hurt). All the tales Austen alludes to in Crabbe have the young couple’s lives ruined. But we have gone over this too many times before and it can grate if you have been hurt as Austen clearly was — remember Cassandra’s marginalia to this: Jane had the right to speak now when she’s older having know the emotional pain when younger. Among other things there are only six finished books and these were subject to the censorship of her family, she wrote them under pressure and containment in a sub-literary milieu – her deepest truest adventures were in her imagination and her communing with other authors in their books.

We can’t go back — I love many of the critical books and have been amused and interested moved by a few of the original sequels, engaged even deeply by some of the movies, have worlds I know about and can visit so life is not so hard to endure alone. I would have no blog-essays others can read, no reaching out to others and knowing something of their lives and thus extending and enrichening my own; I have more friends, many more acquaintances.There would be no Austen variations. But I think the core experience is harder to sustain than it once was.

The larger question I signal by my use of the photo of Glenn Close that appeared on twitter a couple of hours ago. Before the Internet I would have been able to know what she wore tonight nor paid attention to what are the nominees (they are on the Net everywhere in lists). Maybe she would not be in such a super-gorgeous dress. And what is in my mind tonight is the result of my presence online.

Our whole lives have altered since the Internet. I would have very few friends, have never published a book or article, much less the amount I have both conventionally and on and off the Net. The whole nature of our experience of life has been re-shaped, for me mostly much for the better. I might have killed myself in my 50s or after Jim died had I not had this world to belong to, communicate with, and the worlds outside it I have been able to enter however marginally. Yet I miss Austen as she was before.


Emma Thompson thanking everyone 23 years ago

Ellen

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