Images of Austen: ‘Reading’ the New Jane Austen Waxwork

ImagesAusten2N.B. I wrote this post last year, when the Jane Austen waxwork had just been announced. It’s hard to say whether the waxwork had as much of an impact as I thought it would when I wrote this post, or whether it was just another media gimmick to distract us from all the real stuff actually happening in the world. Either way, it led to a great deal of musing on my part, the larger portion of which I share with you below.

Last year, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath announced an astonishing breakthrough: finally, after years of dull, disappointing images of the famous author gracing book covers and coffee mugs around the world, they had at last discovered what Jane Austen actually looked like. Hurrah! Cried Austenites everywhere. Finally, a release from the tyranny of the one authoritative portrait of the author! Finally, an image of the writer we can show our children! Finally, an image of a woman we would actually want to be friends with! And how was this miracle achieved? Well, by the patient efforts of a forensic scientist, who spent the better part of three years on a quest to discover the ‘real’ Jane Austen.

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Lit Major At The Movies: Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield Park 1999Last year I re-read Mansfield Park. And made a surprising discovery.

I actually liked it. All those years of avoidance, staring at it on the shelf and wondering whether it would ever do anything more other than round out my collection of Austen’s work – what a waste.

So when I found myself loving the book, I naturally wondered whether perhaps my younger self had also been unfair on the movie adaptations of the novel. In particular, the 1999 version directed by Patricia Rozema. So I tracked it down and gave it another go. And what I found was, if not the most enjoyable viewing experience (or, indeed, true-to-the-book adaptation), at least a thought-provoking one.

The 1999 version of Mansfield Park is a darker, more sombre version of Austen than those made earlier in the decade. This turn-of-the-millennium Austen hints at the changes that are going to begin appearing in Austen adaptations of the noughties: an interest in the grungy, the suppressed; in sex, and in the characters who frequently hover on the periphery of Austen’s narratives (domestic servants and, in this particular adaptation, slaves on the sugar plantations owned by the Bertram family). Although we never really see either slaves or servants, these individuals are conspicuous in their absence.

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Why Jane Austen? (2011), by Rachel M. Brownstein

Why Jane AustenThis book is #3 on my Austen in August reading list.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who has frequently found themselves, after revealing their appreciation of Austen’s novels, being asked that impertinent question, the one that drives just about every fan of the famous writer up the wall: ‘Why Jane Austen?’.

It drives us crazy because it is so often difficult to put into words why we read – and love – Austen’s novels. And it’s difficult, too, because the question implies that there is little reason for people in the modern world to be reading two hundred year old ‘love stories’. The question can be delivered in a tone of genuine curiosity or, alternatively, of resounding condemnation (‘Why Jane Austen? Wasn’t she that spinster woman who wrote books about women falling in love because she was trying to fill some sort of void?’ Incidentally, these are the ones I’d dearly love to reply to by returning the favour, and stuffing the particularly gaping void that is their mouth with passing vol-au-vents. But since I don’t want to be thrown out of the first annual meeting for the local Wine and Cheese club for assaulting one of my fellow gastronomes, I desist). Continue reading

Cover[t] Designs: Jane Austen Cover To Cover (2014), by Margaret C. Sullivan

Jane Austen Cover To CoverI read this book as part of the Austen in August event, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

If you like pretty books, then prepare to drool in an unsightly but endearing way. There’s nothing more appealing to a cover design nut than a book about cover designs, especially one that has such a pretty design itself. The publication of a book exploring the various physical manifestations of Austen’s novels was probably only a matter of time, considering how many editions of her works have been published in the two hundred years since she first began writing.

And Austen, with her wide appeal – from literary critics, to passionate fans, to the casual reader – is perhaps one of the most interesting topics when considering the marketing of classic books to readers from all walks of life. Is she chick-lit? Satire? A nostalgic portrait of a pre-industrialised Britain? High-brow literature, or the eighteenth century equivalent of the Harlequin romance? Continue reading

Austen in August 2015

austeninaugustrbr-buttonIs anybody else’s mind simply blown by the realisation that is is August again, already? Mine certainly is. But August means Austen in August, the super-fun reading event that celebrates everything Jane Austen.

I’ve got a much shorter to-read list this time around, mostly because I don’t know how much time I’ll get to read this month. So I’ve only got a few choice selections:

  1. Emma – this will be my Austen re-read for the month, as 2015 marks two hundred years since its publication (I know, Miss Woodhouse looks simply amazing for two hundred – how does she do it?)
  2. Jane Austen Cover To Cover by Margaret C. Sullivan Completed; review here.
  3. Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein Completed; review here.
  4. Everybody’s Jane by Juliette Wells

As you can see, this year I’m continuing my theme of reading books dedicated to dissecting the Jane Austen phenomenon.

Are you participating in this month’s event? What will you be reading?

A Lit Major At The Movies: Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

ColdComfortFarm1995The Nineties seem to have been a bit of a golden decade for book-to-film adaptations. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare all got the star treatment in this decade. Perhaps a little less known, but nonetheless well-loved, is the 1995 adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which I read a little while ago. It stars Kate Beckinsdale as Flora Poste, the nosy, recently orphaned young woman who goes to live with her strange family at Cold Comfort Farm, and turn their lives upside down.

Interestingly enough, Beckinsdale went on to play Austen’s Emma in the 1996 adaptation, one year after Cold Comfort Farm was released. Whether she got this role based on her role as Flora Poste, the twentieth century’s Emma Woodhouse, or whether she was filming both films simultaneously (or one after the other?), it’s an interesting crossover. And her character in this movie is indeed similar to Emma Woodhouse, although Beckinsdale plays Emma with a bit more of a twinkle, a lightness which is not present in her portrayal of Flora, which is a little more understated. Continue reading

‘Tidy’ Lives: Cold Comfort Farm (1932), by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm'Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to write a review of Cold Comfort Farm. It piqued my interest because I’d read about it in Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine, and thought it sounded fantastic. Considering it has been dubbed “Probably the funniest book ever written”, and emerged in the period of inestimable comic talents like P.G. Wodehouse, I decided I’d give it a go.

The reason I didn’t know whether to write a review or not was probably because I didn’t know what to make of the book itself. Lest I show my ignorance (or my poor sense of humour, often inclined to the banana-peel school of comedy, if I’m honest, despite my best efforts to cultivate it), I put off writing anything about it.

But Cold Comfort Farm is a strange book, and I hope that writing a little bit about it will allow me to puzzle it through. If not – well, hopefully one of my lovely readers will help me out. Continue reading

A Lit Major at the Movies: Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca 1940Spoilers ahead!

Who doesn’t love a bit of Hitchcock now and again? Although the director is probably best-known for iconic films such as Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock actually made his debut in Hollywood with what has been patronisingly dubbed a ‘woman’s film’. Having read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca a few months ago, I decided to return to the film version that I’d absolutely loved when I’d first seen it (pre-reading the book, much to my shame).

Rebecca is a controversial book in many ways, and it’s perhaps inevitable that the film should be so too. As with du Maurier’s novel, the heroine of the story is a young, nameless woman working as a companion to a vulgar older lady, who meets and marries a mysterious widower and goes to live on his estate in the south of England. The film captures the book’s wonderful opening lines in an iconic way: as the film begins, we hear the heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) say: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. She takes us on a dream-tour of Manderley’s front drive. Continue reading

All Our Old Heroines: How To Be A Heroine (2014), by Samantha Ellis

How To Be A HeroineEvery avid childhood reader remembers the heroes and the heroines that defined their young lives. They’re almost like close friends, those Lizzie Bennets and Lucy Pevensies and Harry Potters. They taught us how to laugh, to love, but perhaps most of all, how to be. How to be children and – to a great extent – how to be adults. How to be individuals, to be principled, to be strong.

But our heroes and heroines don’t just change us. To a large extent, we control them. We get out what we put in, and it’s hardly surprising that the best-loved books stay with readers throughout their lives, each time offering the reader something slightly different.

Heroes and heroines offer us a template for how to be – funny, brave, clever, whatever the author thinks is most important – but whether we, as readers, chose to accept these templates is a different matter altogether. This is perhaps particularly true of heroines, because the social roles imposed on women (mother, wife, daughter) are echoed in fiction, and reading anything published more than a few decades ago (and, regrettably, sometimes even just a few days ago) seems to offer women a pretty narrow scope of templates to accept. So there’s often a debate about whether we should give girls books like A Little Princess or Little Women, while offering boys Treasure Island is scarcely ever thought quite so problematic (presumably there’s no issue with giving girls Treasure Island, and no possibility of giving boys Little Women). Continue reading

A Lit Major At The Movies: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein1931Creature1“It’s alive! It’s aliiiiive!”

Literary critics from all walks of life blanch whenever someone is careless enough to dub Frankenstein’s monster a ‘Frankenstein’. Honestly, it pains our little hearts whenever Mary Shelley’s complicated character is mistakenly called by its creator’s name. “What are you going as for Halloween, Timmy?” “I’m going to be a scary Frankenstein!”

NO. NO. NO. No, you are not, Timmy. Follow me, on a little journey to the early days of Hollywood, and I will show you why you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Okay, so perhaps I was a little hard on little Timmy and his oh-so-adorable green face paint and thick-soled boots. So while he’s off crying in a corner and his mother’s throwing me dirty looks, I’ll carry on with my story. Continue reading