By Amelia Dale, The University of Sydney
I have been thinking about love and Austen. Coordinating a large Jane Austen course last semester involved, inevitably, witnessing students’ confessions, from the first tutorial until the end-of-semester evaluations, of their love for Austen.
There seems to be a renewed, globalised spate of Austen-loving. Perhaps we could position it amongst the reworking of the 1990s aesthetics that seems to colour everything this year: shop mannequins can be spotted wearing double denim, the Spice Girls have resurfaced, everyone is playing Pokémon. The mid-90s were a high point in Austen-mania. Adaptations included the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries (1995, the wet shirt one), Sense and Sensibility (1995, the Emma Thompson one), Emma (1995), Emma (1996) and Clueless (1995). Monuments to the history of Austen-love are on display in the exhibition opening on 6 August at the Folger, curated by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub, ‘Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity’, which includes 90s objects such as Colin Firth’s white shirt. The exhibition is testament to Austen’s capacity to inspire verbal and commercial declarations of ‘love’ for centuries. But the 90s adaptations in particular have played an enormous role in constructing a commercially profitable, mass marketable version of Austen, cementing her close cultural association with romance and chick-lit.
The latest Austen film, Love & Friendship, is actually an outlier among Austen adaptations. It isn’t a film for mass consumption in the same way as, say, Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005, the Kiera Knightley one). It has a budget of about one-tenth the size and a limited release. As Austenblog, a mouthpiece of online Austen culture writes, Love & Friendship ‘is not the kind of film that most people would think of when they think of a “Jane Austen movie” … there is no grand romantic story’. An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, written and directed by Whit Stillman and starring Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship is a period drama but not a romcom. The title choice could be a joke about how little ‘love’ (in the Hollywood sense) there is in the film.
The little love there is gets undermined, even in the changes Stillman makes to Austen’s text. While the ending of Austen’s Lady Susan is ambiguous, Stillman (spoiler alert!) makes it clear in his version that Frederica and Reginald only are able to be ‘happily’ married – only allowed to be in love – because it suits Lady Susan’s plans. The film audience is placed at a distance from the ‘happy’ regency wedding of the couple: we watch Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan watch the pair. Their passion is mediated and ironised by her gaze and by her presence. The audience is removed from the romantic love on display.
Stillman’s film (unusually for an Austen adaptation) reflects how the ‘romantic’ endings of Austen’s novels are often ambiguous and disorienting. Austen often seems to emphasise rather than smooth over the coincidences and improbabilities that lead to the ‘happy’, heterosexual pairing off that closes so many of her novels. Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility are relevant examples, but let us look instead at Mansfield Park where Austen’s authorial narrator seems to view Fanny and Edmund at an ironic, maybe sardonic distance, comparable to the way Lady Susan views Frederica and Reginald. Describing the ‘romance’ between Fanny and Edmund, specifically Edmund falling out of love with Mary, and falling in love with Fanny, Austen famously makes the machinery of the ‘happy ending’ visible:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
Austen opts for a choose-your-own-adventure style ending. The reader decides when Edmund falls in love with Fanny and, amongst this ostentatious deferral to the reader’s ideas of how love should be performed, the narrator suggests how the ending itself might be written to sate readerly desires for a romance and specific genre expectations. The narrator simultaneously undermines Edmund and Fanny’s romance, describing how the marriage between Edmund and Fanny can only come about through the breaking of ‘unchanging attachments’ and the ‘cure’ of ‘unconquerable passions’.
Another recent Austen adaptation which plays with the audience’s expectations of romance is Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible. Published this year, it is part of HarperCollins’ ‘Austen Project’, which involves pairing six different ‘bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works’. Accordingly, Eligible is a reworking of Pride and Prejudice, re-imagining Lydia and Mary Bennet as spin-class addicts and Paleo dieters in small town America. In many respects, Eligible is similar to Bridget Jones’ Diary (both the novel and first film), a modern ‘take’ on Austen’s most popular novel with a middle-aged heroine that speaks to contemporary anxieties about older women being single and childless. The most interesting thing for me about Eligible is the way it self-consciously structures itself around the desires of two large, overlapping but possibly not entirely equivalent categories of consumers – Pride and Prejudice fans and chick-lit readers – for a courtship and a heterosexual ‘happy-ever-after’.
In Sittenfeld’s novel, ‘Eligible’ is a Bachelor-style reality TV show. Bingley competes in it before the novel begins, marking him out (like he is at the beginning of Austen’s novel) as the quintessential ‘eligible’ young man who ‘must be in want of a wife’. The show ends up paying the Bennet family to film Chip Bingley and Jane’s wedding. Chip and Jane’s happy ending’ is staged in an elaborate ceremony involving six camera crews, complete with a jib camera on a crane. The marriage ceremony proceeds for ‘over an hour. At intervals, makeup was reapplied … a break was taken while Jane, accompanied by Liz and three members of the wardrobe department, went to urinate’. To read the concluding chapters of Eligible is to be in a state of hyperawareness about the way ‘love’ is being staged and shaped for mass consumption. Chip and Jane’s romance (and Darcy and Liz’s) is made to conform to certain conventional contemporary romantic tropes by the producers of the TV show ‘Eligible’, self-reflexively mirroring the way Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible similarly transfigures Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Dr Amelia Dale teaches in the English department at The University of Sydney. Her research focuses on gender, mimetic reading and adaptations of Don Quixote in eighteenth-century Britain. Her work as Associate Investigator focuses on emotional socialization and imitative, quixotic reading, specifically the relationship between the late eighteenth-century role of the mother in emotionally socialising her children, and female authorship. She received her PhD (English) from The University of Sydney (2015). She is Secretary and Treasurer of the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia (RSAA).
 Deborah Kaplan, ‘Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women and Courtship in Two of the Recent Films’, Persuasions No. 18 (1996): 171-81, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number18/kaplan.htm, accessed 19 July 2016.
 ‘Review: Love & Friendship’, Austenblog, https://austenblog.com/2016/01/25/review-love-friendship/, accessed 19 July 2016.
 Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/141/141-h/141-h.htm#link2HCH0048, accessed 19 July 2016.
 Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible (London: HarperCollins, 2016), 463. Kindle Edition.