AustenBlog declares that ‘‘She’s everywhere.’’ Laurie Brown’s time-travel novel published in 2009 is titled after the question the heroine constantly asks herself: ‘‘What Would Jane Austen Do?’’ More than a decade ago, Austen scholars and readers started their own Republic of Pemberley online (named after Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice) as a clearinghouse of Austen information and gathering place for discussion. Austen fans travel the globe, from Bath to San Antonio, to dress in Regency period costumes and attend balls similar to those in Austen novels. Year after year, Austen novels are remade for television and film, are transformed into contemporary novels, and serve as inspiration for online fanzines and journals. How do the worlds of Jane Austen’s fiction spark such an avid following and translate across different mediums and genres, even today?
Austen’s debut novel, Sense and Sensibility, began two centuries of this type of Austen mania. The novel has been adapted a number of times, from the BBC miniseries in 1981 and the more recent BBC television remake written by Andrew Davies in 2008 to Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), a South Indian adaptation transformed into a romantic musical written in the Tamil language (2000). In 1995, the film adaptation directed by Ang Lee and written by Emma Thompson and including a stellar cast received critical acclaim and numerous awards and honors, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and nominations for Best Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score. Lee and Thompson captured Austen’s tone, rhetorical intention, and literary themes and created an exuberant world with which mainstream filmgoers could identify. As Barbara Shulgasser of the San Francisco Examiner remarked in her review of the film, ‘‘Lee and Thompson create a world so believable in its absurd rigidity that we feel we have known these characters all our lives. We are unshakably interested in everything that happens to them.’’ Most critics agree that the Lee-Thompson film version of Sense and Sensibility provides a rich insight into the world Austen created in her novel, one that continues to make an undeniable impact on our popular culture and still speaks to our contemporary desires. The Lee-Thompson remake keenly acknowledges that Austen is ‘‘everywhere,’’ particularly in light of the fact that the adaptation was released by a major Hollywood motion picture company worldwide. The commercial and critical success of the film shows that the characterization, conflicts, and elegance of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility still have the power to hold our contemporary interest. But ultimately, the simplicity of English idyll from another time—the fact that love and romance seem to be the only real problem in this period and place—is what draws us in and keeps us there.
For the most part, the characters of the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility fit the descriptions detailed in Austen’s novel. They have strong traits, making it easy for viewers to immediately understand and identify with the role each plays or will play in the narrative. For example, Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood stands on strong morals, a deep sense of propriety, and social restraint. As Karen Stohr notes in her article on ‘‘Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination’’ Elinor ‘‘fulfills every major social duty without ever being obsequious or false. Always conscious of the demands of gratitude and family relationships, she defends people according to, but not beyond, their true merits.’’ Though Stohr speaks to the Elinor written by Austen, her observation accurately pinpoints the Elinor in the Lee-Thompson adaptation. As in the novel, the film version of Elinor is not cold, but rather thoughtful in the way she conducts herself, a woman of passion tempered by reason. After all, as Austen writes, Elinor possessed ‘‘a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother,’’ as well as ‘‘an excellent heart.’’ Elinor’s proper demeanor, though given to a twenty-seven-year old in the film rather than the teenager of the novel, hides a core of intense feeling and compels the viewers—and readers—of Sense and Sensibility to sympathize with her as she tries so hard to serve as the touchstone for everyone else’s drama. Her moral code tells her to consider others’ needs before her own, and this selfless manner, expertly portrayed by Emma Thompson, prompts viewers to hope Elinor receives her own happy ending. Viewers want to see Elinor get a just reward for her kindness, her thoughtful restraint, and her unrequited longing—namely a happy ending with Edward Ferrars.
At the center of Sense and Sensibility is the characters’ quest for their heart’s desire. Elinor and Marianne must navigate upper-middle-class society and, in different ways, attempt to secure love despite the machinations and secrets of others. These obstacles generate conflict that makes the viewer wonder: will the sisters get what they want? Will they find true love? Will they find happiness? The viewer sympathizes with Elinor when Lucy reveals her secret, since they witnessed Elinor and Edward sharing sweet moments of longing and a budding romance. The viewer falls in love with Willoughby right along with Marianne as Lee makes certain to capture the lovestruck expressions on Kate Winslet’s face every time he is around. The personal quest of the Dashwood sisters for love, happiness, and security is a basic, human quest that undeniably resounds with the viewer, no matter their decade or generation. As Edward Shoben argues, the work of Jane Austen reflects ‘‘a universal and fundamental experience that is at once affective and cognitive, emotional and intellectual, in its character.’’ Lee and Thompson build anxiety and anticipation about the future for the Austen characters, allowing the viewer to identify with and understand their emotions, as well as their intense longing for a certain outcome. The viewer can easily experience the characters’ desires, pain, grief, and personal restraint.
The world of Jane Austen is uncomplicated: girl meets boy, girl cannot have boy because of certain social dictates or because boy is a cad in disguise or because boy must marry for money, and finally, girl ultimately ends up with the best man for her. In the Austen world, no one (of major consequence to the narrative) is employed, and characters have time for long conversations, long walks, and long carriage rides. Every window looks out onto wide, sweeping vistas, every face is clean and rosy. The LeeThompson adaptation brings this English fantasy to life. Viewers get the chance to spend a few hours in a place where the biggest concern is who is marrying whom or where the next picnic is or who will attend the ball. Certainly, the film shows Elinor worrying about domestic matters, but at its core, the cinematic Sense and Sensibility portrays a setting in which working folk are shown only on the periphery, while the main characters are allowed to think and roam and take care of their personal lives as needed. In the twenty-first century, when people are reachable anywhere, anytime, by phone, e-mail, or text, when working does not necessarily stop when one is away from the workplace, this film depicts a simple existence where the minute details are taken care of, leaving characters plenty of time to focus on emotions amidst their pursuit of pleasure. In the nineteenth century, when religion and nationalism went hand in hand, this rural idyll represented a sort of English paradise, an idea of Eden that obviously still exists and appeals to many people.
The 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is but one of many successful Austen remakes; these films are in large part successful due to Austen’s textured settings, clearly defined themes, and her unfettered narrative style. In her review of the 1995 film adaptation of the novel, Jeanne Aufmuth wonders, ‘‘Enduring love, heartbreak, undying passion and bitter betrayal. What more could you ask from Jane Austen, and for that matter, from a film?’’ Douglas McGrath, scriptwriter of Miramax’s version of Austen’s Emma, says Austen writes ‘‘superb dialogue, she creates memorable characters, [and] she has an extremely clever skill for plotting.’’ Indeed, the ‘‘superb dialogue,’’ ‘‘memorable characters,’’ and sharply defined romantic conflicts, not to mention the struggle to fulfill innermost desires and the pursuit of happiness, have allowed Austen to become successfully translated across genres, definitively positioning Austen ‘‘everywhere’’ in our social and cultural consciousness.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Jane Austen, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Michelle S. Lee, Critical Essay on Sense and Sensibility, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.