Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lost in Austen

Note: Only pseudo spoilers, no details, but you might want to proceed with caution.

The Lost in Austen miniseries finally reached the top of my Netflix queue! My husband and I enjoyed watching it last night. It really is very funny at moments but, overall, I have to agree with one of Amanda Price's lines - "that's Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble dryer" - when I reflect on this film. Let's face it, Jane Austen probably spends a lot of time tossing and turning in her coffin. Those of us who, to quote myself, are "determined to continue, elaborate on, or simply meddle with Jane Austen's novels" take extraordinary liberties with her work and it is appropriate to acknowledge that much of what we do would not meet with her approval. I have struggled with this in my own writing and in my reading of Austen fan fiction, sometimes horrified by the fantastic scenarios which her characters are thrust into (like Darcy and Elizabeth conversing with Lady Catherine while swimming naked in an alpine lake in Mr. Darcy, Vampyre or engaging in premarital relations in almost every one of the The Pemberley Variations ). What Lost in Austen reminded me is that while I might rave and rant about incongruity or historical inaccuracy, it is all done out of love for Austen. Her stories have become so much a part of our lives that they virtually live and breath, constantly changing and expanding into new avenues as they adapt to our modern world. Amanda Price puts it beautifully: "I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and the language and courtesy. It's become part of who I am and what I want." This rings so true to me. It doesn't matter if Georgiana is a spoiled little girl determined to have her way or if Miss Bingley sexual preferences are less than conventional. I'm even willing to overlook the fact that a night in a hotel room with a man didn't ruin Lydia's reputation. It's all in homage to Austen and, while sometimes maddening, overall it's thoroughly delightful. So please try to rest in peace Jane. Being one of the most beloved authors of all time cannot be easy but it's sure have its compensations.

One last thought - is Christina Cole destined to play all the hated ladies in Austen? She was Miss Bingley in Lost in Austen and Mrs. Elton in the new BBC version of Emma. What's next? I could see her playing the role Isabella Thorpe and think she would be a perfect Elizabeth Elliot. She is absolutely stunning to watch on screen.


  1. Hmmm. I have to say that the vulgarity and poor writing really bothered me. Plus, as a science fiction fan, the juvenile and lazy use of time travel was not terribly engaging. And as for love of Austen, I really felt that the purpose of the writer was to make fun of people who like Austen - thus, Amanda is not very bright, only reads ONE of Austen's novels (and the most popular), and is so completely a Mary Sue that I'm surprised fanfiction writers on the internet didn't sue Guy Andrews (or whoever it was who wrote it).

    Sorry for being so negative - I just don't think that jokes about pubes belong in Jane Austen (I had similar problems with Becoming Jane).

  2. I totally understand your negativity. There were parts of this movie that made me want to scream and it was quite a struggle to overlook them. But I didn't think the intention was to mock Austen fans - after all, we come in all forms and sizes. Some of us do just read Pride & Prejudice over and over again until the spine breaks. Others, like myself, delve through every line she ever wrote with microscopic attention. The approaches are very different but are both founded in love for Jane Austen. I tried to focus on that aspect of Lost in Austen, keeping my academic side in check.

    I must admit that this post was the result of many months of struggling to rationalize my own interference with Austen's work. I have become much more open minded about what I'm willing to tolerate than I was before finding the gall to rewrite Pride & Prejudice. Had I seen this movie a year ago, I doubt I would have been so sympathetic.

  3. You make an excellent point. I just have a difficult time with how little the series seems to interact with a) those who have a more academic or full engagement with Austen; b) Austen's morals, manners, and ethical spirit; c) Austen's level of intelligence (this last is rather a high bar, but I feel like the series didn't even try, instead going for gutter humor and cheap shots like "Downtown," relying on awkwardness for humor instead of wit). In other words, I'm not convinced that the writer and director actually love Austen - it really felt more like a satire, spoof, or mockery of those who do love Austen than the product of those who do.

    But I'm glad you point out the many and equally valid ways people love Austen - I must not let my elitist side run away with me. :-)

  4. But it's so hard to keep elitism in check! If I hadn't watched this film with my husband I think it would have been even more difficult. He kept pointing out to me why certain scenes were funny instead of maddening. It kept me grounded.

    I do fear what is happening to Jane Austen in regards to her modern popularity. Marketers are so adept at taking the slightest trend and running away with it. A lot of the recent Austen related products (I think there is no need to name names) that have been embraced by popular culture feel tainted by corporate interest. I have very mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, should I not just be thrilled that more people are thinking about Austen? On the other, I want to yell and scream for the marketers to keep their grubby hands off.

    I hope the people out to grab a slice of the Austen pie would at least know better than to blatantly mock their consumers. If that is what's going on in Lost in Austen then they must really think exceptionally poorly of our intelligence (which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me - since when were those who read literature considered stupid?). Have you read any statements by the writer or director that led you to believe this or is your opinion solely derived from their end product?

  5. I, unfortunately, had no such grounding when I watched LiA, and thus I fulminated irately at the library computer screen by myself. :-)

    You really are forcing me to be honest, aren't you? :-) No, I hadn't based my opinion on other than the end product. I rather shamefacedly googled for interviews, and came up with one after reading your entry:

    I must admit, first, that Mr. Andrews (the writer) seems to be more sincere in his admiration of Austen than others (who shall remain nameless, in respect to your reasonable wish to remain positive on your blog :-) ) - he says truly that "Is there a better constructed, more balanced, sublimely satisfying story than Pride and Prejudice? As a sequence of dramatic progressions, reverses, false summits and romantic epiphanies, the book cannot be beat." Such a description, I think, springs from a true admiration.

    You ask the question, however, "since when are those who read literature considered stupid?" - Well, the answer is that Jane Austen seems to occupy a marginalized space in the realm of literature - since she still has such a popular audience, many think they can get away with portraying her readers as idiots. And for me, that's what the portrayal of Amanda in LiA is - the idiotic lover of Austen. Notice that Andrews, though he's clearly in love with his heroine, does not burden her with an abundance (or even a paucity) or brains.

    Furthermore, though Andrews' reimaginings of characters are overfrequently called "brilliant" or "clever," and he says they're based on "close readings," honestly, seeing Mrs. Bennet as not silly (a rather feminist reading, in opinion, and one of the weaker ones to come from that ideology) and Mr. Bennet as an abdicator are absolutely nothing new - they've been around since at least the 80s in critical books, and in popular consciousness soon after - and in the 2005 film. As for the further weirdness like Caroline, Bingley, and Wickham, I think those are just really for shock value.

    I also am quite angry about the clearly money-only motives of the unnamed (but discussed more plainly over at Austenblog) producers of Austen paralit and films. But I think I said it better over there (one of the few times I actually agree with both the spirit and letter of Austenblog's post).

  6. This is great. I'm constantly struggling with so many of the issues you've raised and hope to mull many of them over on this blog.

    I think it's necessary to admit that there are many who read Austen just for the love story and not the literary experience but, quite frankly, I have a hard time believing she is all that accessible to the casual reader. They may walk away with a good idea of the general plot line but are unlikely to have fully understood a good chunk of the novel (not that there is anything wrong with this - better than not reading Austen at all or just devouring modern "chick-lit"). This is exactly Amanda Price's issue - had she been more in tune with the novel she loved she surely would have known better than to commit the many social faux pas that drive the film's plot. She knows who marries who but has not the slightest sense of the period's social conventions.

    Other writers don't seem to have this problem. No one casually picks up George Elliot or Dostoevsky. Maybe this is exactly what makes Austen so great - she engages readers who are just looking for an escapist romance while challenging those who analyze her works. This might also explain why Pride and Prejudice remains the most popular Austen novel - I can't see Amanda Price obsessing over Mansfield Park, can you?

    What if Lost in Austen featured a more academic Austen fan? It probably would have been a film full of the kind of analysis we are engaging in here - while we might be enthralled, not exactly blockbuster material.

  7. Excellent points. I think we already have a movie that explores the different ways readers respond to Austen - and does it brilliantly and powerfully - The Jane Austen Book Club. I think, even better than the book, TJABC shows who Austen's language, plots, morals, and challenges affect six very different people, from those reading mostly selfishly or shallowly (Allegra, Bernadette), to the middlebrow (Jocelyn, Sylvia), or intellectually (Grigg, Prudie). I love how the discussions are realistic in portrayal, constantly both popping up great insights and then letting them get stuck there without progressing, how the director clearly knows her Austen and the Austen scholarship, and how the personal lives of the club members intrude on their ability to read intelligently.

    See, if more films were like that, and audiences liked them better, I think we wouldn't have nearly as many problems!

    Look at me, being all positive :-)

  8. So true! It's been a while since I saw the film. At the time I was a bit resentful because I felt that reading Austen aloud to each other was a unique activity indulged in by only my husband and myself (rather silly of me, wasn't it?). But the film did a great job of showing how Austen remains poignant in the modern world - a wonderful model of how relationship should be conducted and adversity confronted. Jane Austen may offer a romantic escape into a seemingly simpler past but more importantly she offers us a guide to life that I find far more poignant than the many self-help books flooding the market. Austen teaches us to be true to our own morality, responsible for our actions, critical in our decision making, and considerate of others. I should definitely watch it again.