I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.
Today I read that a film company is planning to turn Jane Austen’s life story into a romantic comedy.
And I know Wikipedia has her down as a writer of romantic novels, but oh dear, oh dear. They were really so much more than that.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane is the romantic one – Elizabeth is made of rather sterner stuff. Consider this exchange between them towards the end of the novel.
“And do you really love him quite well enough? Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?”
“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
I know very many of my friends will recoil from this in horror and say that Elizabeth really loves Darcy, and I’m not really suggesting that she didn’t – just that there’s a hint of truth in her sardonic response. She couldn’t persuade herself to marry a Mr Collins for the sake of his inheritance of her father’s estate, but she was more a realist than a romantic. So did Austen identify with Jane, or Elizabeth? I suspect it was an argument she was constantly having with herself, as it turns up in one form or another in many of the the novels.
Think of the fun Austen made of the gothic romance, in Northanger Abbey. Consider Emma’s matchmaking for Harriet Smith, and the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Then there’s the love story of Anne Elliott in my favourite Austen novel, Persuasion, who in her youth was talked out of marrying the man she loved – a poor young naval lieutenant. His ineligibility disappears when he returns from the Napoleonic wars a captain and a rich man.
For a lady in Jane Austen’s time there was very little that was funny about romance. They had little agency – there were very few ways they could survive on their own. Like Fanny Price they could be the poor relation, the companion. The useful sister – as Anne Elliott was before she was rescued by the return of a rich Captain Wentworth. Like Charlotte Lucas, perhaps it was necessary to marry someone simply because he could provide a home – even if he was unlikeable.
Of course the choices for women who weren’t ladies, even impoverished ones, were even less appealing. If you can bear an even more cold-hearted view of Elizabeth, then read the brilliant novel Longbourn by Jo Baker, and Imagine what it must have been like to be a servant whose job it was to wash the petticoats of the young ladies who romantically trailed through muddy fields without a second thought.
Jane Austen herself chose another option, of course. Yes, she did everything that was required of a woman of her standing in the family. If you go to Chawton, where she lived, you can see her piano, and the music she transcribed herself. She did hand sewing – there’s a beautiful quilt. And you can also see the tiny, dodecagonal table on which she wrote.
So was this life the stuff of romantic comedy?
We do know she had one proposal of marriage – which she initially accepted and then rejected the following day. In a letter to her niece, Fanny, years later she said this “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” Clearly that’s a reflection of the choice she made in her life – the opposite of the choice her novels mostly seem to advocate.
That’s romantic, in its own bleak way, that a woman with such a sharp and satirical eye allowed her own heart to rule – even though the choice was to endure poverty rather than marry a man she could not love.
After the death of her father, along with her mother and her sister, she was dependent on the charity of her brothers, whose own financial lives were something of a rollercoaster. She continued to play the part of a dutiful daughter and family woman, and she wrote her novels, right up to the end, even through her last, lingering illness.
In 1817, at the age of 41, Jane Austen died. There are various theories about the nature of her illness – Hodgkins Lymphoma, perhaps. Wikipedia suggests Brill Zimmer disease – a form of typhus exacerbated by stress and malnutrition.
So all I’m left with is this final question. How? How is it possible to turn Jane Austen’s life story into a romantic comedy? Am I missing something here? Doesn’t a comedy have to be, you know, funny? Doesn’t a romance have to be romantic? Other than in the sense of dying young of tuberculosis, or whatever.
There just isn’t enough snark in the world.
Souce – The Guardian, Jane Austen’s life to be turned into a big screen romantic comedy