To anybody who’s ever fallen asleep during the BBC Pride and Prejudice, only to wake up to a permanent earworm of the credits music (DOO doo doo doo doo DOO doo doo doo doo DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO), we have good news! Apparently there’s more to Jane Austen and music than an infectious, rolling piano piece and that terrible faux-Regency wallpaper background: Oxford professor Richard Jenkyns has inherited a stack of music manuscripts belonging to Jane and, in some cases, copied out by Jane—there’s even a portion of one piece that, due to its total lack of quality, Jenkyns theorizes might be Jane’s amateur attempt at composing. (Apparently our girl’s gifts were broad, but not that broad.)
So this is big news. New, multi-sensory information on the elusive real life of Jane Austen! Even better, now we can rifle through Jane’s music and judge her for owning, like, John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks, or whatever! (I know I would.) Add a microphone, a commentator, some experts, and an enthusiastic soprano, and you’ve got Jane Austen’s iPod, from those twin bastions of the up-and-coming, the Beeb Radio and PRI’s The World. Alert the academics!
But wait. THE ACADEMICS ARE ALREADY HERE. The call is coming from inside the building! “Jane Austen’s iPod” is part fascinating insight into Jane’s musical life and part old-school John Cleese parody of Home Counties journalism, which makes it doubly worth the time and bandwidth. You’re going to want to sit down and pay attention for this one.
Basically, it’s like this, if “this” were somehow secretly taken over by Ricky Gervais and the cast of Extras:
I’m just saying: if it turns out Jane Austen’s iPod is like Betty White’s, er, muffin…I’m out.
With the return of Glee to the weekly TV schedule—finally—I think we’ve all been reminded of a new truth universally acknowledged: everything would be better, Austen novels included, if everybody had at least the option of bursting into a well-chosen pop song from time to time. You know, revealing their places in the collective consciousness, choreography optional (but encouraged). Lizzy belts out a girl-power ballad—ill practiced, of course—at the height of her emotional turmoil? Knightley takes the edge off with a few bars of air guitar and a phantom drum solo? I’m telling you: Jane Austen might roll in her grave, but Jane Lynch would make a fine Lady Catherine.
Am I right?
Here are a few Austen characters and their likely anthems:
Captain Wentworth: “I’m on a Boat” – The Lonely Island
Anne Elliot: “I Will Always Love You“* – Dolly Parton
*The original version with the sad monologue in the middle, because that speech is exactly the gracious and heartbroken speech Anne would make to Wentworth—complete with poignant pauses every few words—and nobody can convince me otherwise.
Mr. Bingley: “Mr. Brightside” – The Killers
Mr. Collins: “Hell No” – Sondre Lerche & Regina Spektor
Charlotte Lucas: “The Sound of Settling” – Death Cab for Cutie
Mary Bennet: “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” – Cat Stevens
Catherine Morland: “Miss Teen Wordpower” – The New Pornographers
Isabella Thorpe: “We Used to Be Friends” – The Dandy Warhols
Marianne Dashwood: “I Feel It All” – Feist
John Willoughby: “It’s Raining Men” – The Weather Girls
Readers, who are we missing?
Okay, internet. Let’s talk about the next big thing. The trending topic. The thing all the kids are talking about, or would be if they were that cool and/or not frittering away their precious youths on ChatRoulette. We’re talking early 19th-century literature, the birth of the modern novel…sung. Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking Pride and Prejudice and that automatic pop-culture dynamite, the opera.
This Saturday, Mrs. Fitzpatrick and I did what all hot young things would on a sunny California afternoon: put on our enormous sunglasses, leggings, and gladiator sandals and hoofed it over to a Jane and the Arts seminar at San Francisco State University, hosted by the Jane Austen Society of North America, Northern California chapter, and partially featuring composer Kirke Mechem and his new Pride and Prejudice opera. Awww, yeah. Work it.
Mechem was, in fact, fascinating (and very enthusiastic when accosted at tea time to discuss Jane Austen March Madness), and spoke at length about the process of adapting Austen. From the perspective of a seasoned writer and composer, he spoke of the appeal of diverse characterization in Pride and Prejudice (and why he’d be unlikely to adapt, say, Persuasion in the same way), the humor and poignancy that attracted him to her work in the first place (see: Bennet, Jane and Mrs.), and tough decisions in the area of cutting (he left out Lizzy’s trip to Pemberley, but hear him out before you storm off in a huff). He spoke about incorporating—or not—the music of the day into his score, and about a single instance of borrowing from another artist’s work.
And then the singers came out.
And it was awesome.
It turns out that Pride and Prejudice practically begs to be set to music—not slavishly, not without edits and rearrangements, but in a way that explores the text in a new and totally entertaining light. Most striking was the way in which the music coordinated with and then illuminated each character in his or her turn—a spot-on aural representation of the people and universe of the novel. Mrs. Bennet as high (not to say shrill) soprano? Check. Darcy as graceful-yet-manly baritone? Also check. Mr. Collins as hilariously imperious bass baritone? Check check check check check. We heard Lizzy and Darcy’s awkward dance at the ball and Lizzy’s rebuttal of Collins, and capped everything off with an aria for (soprano) Jane Bennet, embellished slightly with the Sara Teasdale poem “Let It Be Forgotten”—which we loved for highlighting both the sweetness of Jane’s character and the sorrow of her situation. In terms of accessibility, there are no Viking helmets here; as opera goes, this is relatively light and totally approachable (and sung in English). If you think Jane Austen is funny, you’ll think her opera’s funny, too.
The Pride and Prejudice opera has yet to premiere professionally, and the internet has not seen fit to grace us with a video sample (we looked!), but consider this the Austenacious stamp of approval: we loved what we saw and heard, and we just can’t wait to hear Lizzy’s takedown of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In fact, we take it back: Lady Catherine just might wear that Viking helmet.