Good job, guys! According to a study by people who track library loans, Pride and Prejudice is the most loaned classic in the UK! (Wuthering Heights is #2.) Jane takes three more of the top 20 spots as well:
- #8 Emma
- #11 Sense and Sensibility
- #17 Northanger Abbey
The Telegraph‘s article says, “The study involves a comparison of lending data from Britain’s libraries for 50 classics by British and Irish authors from the literary canon from the early 1990s, a decade ago, and last year.”
Mission #1: People of Britain, read more Austen! I want to see Persuasion and Mansfield Park on this list next time too. We can’t leave Anne Elliot out in the cold and Fanny Price sitting on her bench, now can we?? And let’s get those other numbers up, too. (Special Sneak Preview: Austenacious will do our part by hosting another read-a-long soon!) People of Not Britain: don’t think I’m not watching you too!
Also according to The Telegraph, “Works by Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and EM Forster have seen their popularity plummet over the last two decades . . ..”
I’m not going to say a word for Thomas Hardy. (Anyone want to take that on in the comments?) But, EM Forster, you guys! I love EM Forster. A Room With a View, anyone? Howards End? So beautiful! So smart! The article says maybe Austen got more popular because of the adaptations, and because of her “rather too light, bright, sparkling tone.” (Though George Orwell also got more popular, and he’s, like, super-funny, right?)
Forster is comic, just as much as Austen, so maybe we need more adaptations? I love the 1985 version of A Room with a View—Helena Bonham Carter, before she was crazy! Naked guys! … Good lord, has it really been that long? IMDB says there’s also a 2007 version, which I completely missed. Have any of you seen it? Thoughts? We could do better, though, right?
For Howards End there’s just the 1992 version with Emma Thompson. I’m conflicted here—I really don’t think this book is adaptable. But if anyone wants to have a go, feel free!
Then there’s our girl George Eliot. I’ll admit I’ve only ever read Middlemarch, and I only read that because of the 1994 version. (See, TV adaptations pay off!) Middlemarch is pretty awesome—though it’s not as joyous as Austen and Forster, it does have depth, without being as, um, self-conscious as the Brontës. Do we want a new Middlemarch adaptation? But Rufus Sewell and Colin’s brother Jonathon are so cute… Juliet Aubrey is so Dorothea…. I don’t know. What do you all think?
Mission #2: People of Britain and Not Britain, read more Forster! Read more Eliot! Demand quality adaptations, or make your own crazy vlogs! Or both! Think, live, breathe fiction!
P.S. (Mission #3: Contemplate Colin Firth’s legs.)
Photo credit: dbking. Used under Creative Commons licensing.
Let’s begin with a story.
Once upon a time, a young man (we’ll call him Shmitzwilliam Farcy) and a young woman (Belizabeth Shmennet) hated one another. Only, over the course of time, they actually came to love each other—go figure—and to overcome the personal barriers standing between them and a life of deep mutual respect and affection. Wonderful! Too bad poor Shmitzwilliam was obligated to marry his sickly cousin and too much of a weenie to stand up to his crazy rich aunt! He ditched Belizabeth, and they both died unloved and unfulfilled.
I love a good love story. Don’t you?
I’ve been reading lately about Jane’s happy endings. Verdict: there are a lot of them. As far as her star couples (I’m tempted to say “ships”; thanks for that, Miss Osborne) are concerned, Jane deals exclusively in true and lasting love between the people that deserve it most; any hints of final sadness are relegated to side-dish relationships (Mr. Collins/Charlotte Lucas, for example; possibly also Lydia/Wickham) and not much mentioned in the first place. How does this consistent promise of happiness play in our postmodern culture, where we often doubt the depth of stories where everything works out well? Can we trust the truth of all this happily ever after?
I’m currently re-reading Persuasion (because it’s wonderful, and because there’s nothing like running an Austen website to remind you of all the Austen you don’t remember), and let me be clear: Persuasion requires a happy ending. The expectation of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s love resuming after all these years gives the novel shape; without it, there can be no passage of time or change of cirumstance, only chapter after chapter after chapter of resigned pining, forever and ever, amen. In that case, it’s not so much a story as a meditation on grief and on unmet needs—we have to believe that Anne would continue to soldier on, but this is a woman still mourning (at heart, if not publicly) after eight years. Something has to change; the sadness and the tedium of all that pining, without the relief of a happy ending, would kill the reader if not the characters. Certainly people do write novels meditating on lost love, on loves that are never found, but even they have more going on than Persuasion minus the final, happy reunion.
It’s unclear whether any of Jane’s other novels would do any better with a sad or ambiguous ending—if Emma Woodhouse were required to work further to earn Mr. Knightley’s love, for example, or if Bingley and Jane never quite got their timing straight. Perhaps, after all, none of Jane’s novels can have ambiguous endings. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an ambiguous ending with Jane—considering the emotional and sometimes practical stakes that her heroines face, maybe anything less than a happy ending must be considered a tragedy. (In Jane’s time, anyway, ambiguity was not a popular choice for endings—emotionally mixed finales wouldn’t come into vogue until the advent of the Modernists and their fragmented, topsy-turvy ways. Until then, the choices are pretty much Austen happy or Hardy crushing.)
In any case, happy endings aren’t totally the point for Jane—her best work is not in the end (delightful though it may be), but in the means. She’s an observer and a cataloguer of love and its power to change people, and happy endings provide some security for that study—a safe place from which to examine the psychology of love. (She could, of course, have written about the psychology of sorrow instead—of loss and permanent loneliness. After all, Jane herself never married. But would this have shown more depth than a consistent observation of success in love? Doubtful; also, far less fun to read.) If Jane’s heroines don’t end up with the “right” guy, the entire tone of her work–of all her works, collectively—changes; if Anne, for example, finally recovers from her original attachment to Wentworth and learns to love herself for the capable and independent woman she is, then it’s not a study in love and strength of character anymore. It’s a coming-of-age story. If Mr. Knightley moves on, unable to handle Emma’s consistent brattery, that‘s a cautionary tale, not a meditation on love and personal change. They might be fine stories, and they might appeal to our modern sense that everything shouldn’t wrap up so neatly, but they lack the basic frame for observing the human heart, as Jane does.
Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’m going to go read the end of Pride and Prejudice, just to make myself feel better.