Jane Austen and Modern Audience

“Jane Austen, the daughter of a Hampshire clergyman, was born at Steventon. She was educated at home; her father was a man of good taste in the choice of reading material, and Jane’s education was conducted on sound lines. Her life was unexciting, being little more than a series of pilgrimages to different places of residence, including the fashionable resort of Bate (1801). On the death of the rector his wife and two daughters removed to the neighbourhood of Southampton, where the majority of Jane Austen’s novels were written. Her first published works were issued anonymously, and she died in middle age, before her merits had received anything like adequate recognition.” 1
Jane Austen’s novels are a reflection of her outlook on life. Her close friends were mainly her family members. Very few people outside of her immediate family even knew she was an author. Her novels focus on two or three families of the middle or upper classes. She omits the lower classes, servants and labourers. She hardly touched the aristocracy, and if she does, it is only to satirise it. She took her raw material, for the novels, from the daily routine of visits, shopping, gossip and other trivial matters meticulously recorded in her letters. She had an eye for the minutiae of life. Tea parties and balls are the most important events in all her novels. The characters pass their time in balls, dinners, walks, playing cards and visiting friends only. Jane refuses to deal with the seamy aspects of life. There are no murders or gory crimes in her novels. There are no adventures or any mystery; the most thrilling events are nothing more than elopements or running away marriages. There are no great villains, no saints, no eccentric characters, no cynics, and no passionate people.
The correct evaluation of Jane Austen as a novelist has come only in the 20th century. None of her books saw a second edition in her lifetime. The collected edition of her works which was bought out in 1833 could not be sold for about half a century. In the 20th century she has been made the object of numerous biographies and appreciations. Almost every piece of her writing has been carefully edited and commented upon. Her works in their eternity have been vastly read and extolled and she has been characterised as the greatest female novelist of England and one of the best of all novelists. David Daiches writes, “The greatest of all the novelists of manners of this or any other period and one who raised the whole genre to a new level of art was Jane Austen.

Film Adaptation History of Jane Austen’s Novels:

  More Jane Austen Related Films:

  • Lost in Austen (2008) : Studio- ITV/Grenada Television Ltd.
    Director- Dan Zeff
  • Miss Austen Regrets (2008) : Studio- BBC Drama co-production with WGBH Boston
    Director- Jeremy Lovering
  • The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) : Studio- Mockingbird Pictures in association with John Calley
    Director- Robin Swicord
  • Becoming Jane (2007) : Studio- Blueprint Pictures / Ecosse Films / Octagon Films / Scion Films
    Director- Julian Jarrold
  • Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980) : Studio- Merchant Ivory Productions
    Director- James Ivory
    Major Jane Austen Related Documentaries:
  • A&E Biography: Jane Austen (2004) : Studio- Working Dog Productions
    Director- Jennifer Stromberg
  • Austen Country (2001) : Studio- Delta Entertainment Corporation
    Director- Liam Dale
  • Jane Austen : Life, Society & Works (1997) : Studio- BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd.
    Director- Liam Dale
  • The Famous Authors Series: Jane Austen (1995) : Studio- KULTUR
    Director- Malcolm Hossick
    Why Jane Austen so popular?
    Jane Austen’s novels are very famous among the film makers since the beginning of the 20th century. The novels and their film adaptation have a wider relationship than Austen herself could imagine. “They tell good stories-simple love stories which are very appealing, particularly to a female audience.” 2 The audience demands interesting characters, strong motivation and probable endings and all there characteristics are found in Austen’s novels. Secondly, the name, Jane Austen and its recognition has the selling power in it. “It may also be relevant to point out that since Jane Austen’s novels are in the public domain, it is not necessary to pay the author for their use. It is relatively inexpensive to film an Austen adaptation. It requires no expensive special effects, no exotic locations, and only a small cast.” 3 Douglas Mc Grath, scriptwriter and director of Miramax’s Emma, summed up the advantages of filming Austen: “I thought Jane Austen would be a good collaborator […] because she writes, you know, superb dialogue, she creates memorable characters, she has an extremely clever skill for plotting – and she’s dead, which means, you know, there’s none of that tiresome arguing over who gets the bigger bun at coffee time. [Purdum 11]
    In 1979 Morris Beja estimated that 20 to 30 percent of American films releases each year are adapted from novels and that 75 percent of the top Academy Awards have gone to adaptations. “The tendency for films to be based on novels continued into the twenty-first century. Since 1977, over half of the films nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures for ‘Best Picture of the Year’ have been based on novels. Of the recent Austen-based theatrical releases, Sense and Sensibility received the most recognition in Hollywood. Emma Thompson won the award for best screenplay, and the film was nominated in six other categories.” 4 The film ‘Clueless’ based on Emma was the biggest success, earning 56.63 million dollars in the USA and 3.433 million pounds in the UK, after costing only 20 million dollars to make. The BBC sold 2,00,000 video copies of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice within a year.
    The BBC Television played a major role since its beginning and in 1964 BBC 2 was created. The commercial television stations such as Granada, ITV and Channel Four also produced the literary adaptations. Let us see some of the most important literary adaptations by the BBC only- Vanity Fair (1967), The Pallisers (1974), (I, Claudius (1976), Clarissa (1991), Scarlet and Black (1993), Middlemarch (1994), The Buccaneers (1995), Persuasion (1995), Pride and Prejudice (1995). Pride and Prejudice has earned the BBC 1,620,225 pounds. By November 1995, the Penguin/BBC edition of the novel Pride and Prejudice had sold over 150,000 copies, and the video version had sold 150,000 copies
    After the filming of Pride and Prejudice in 1940, no other film adaptation film adaptation of the Austen novel was made for theatrical release until 1995. There were live television adaptations in both England and the US from 1950 to 1989. Amazingly, during 1995 and 1996, six adaptations appeared – first Clueless, then Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma by Miramax and the Meridian & A & E Emma. As a result of manifold productions, Jane Austen has become more popular.
    The question might be – ‘why was Austen so popular among the film makers?’ We find the British people have a nostalgic longing for the order and beauty of the past. Austen’s novels signify English national heritage and all that implies of the past as an idyll of village life before the industrial revolution. She presents the traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety and Christian values. The concerns at the centre of Austen’s plot i.e. sex, romance and money are central concerns in our own era. As the films appeared, articles in news papers, magazines and websites, about the locations of the houses which appeared in the film, also published. American audience enjoyed the experience of being voyeurs in an alien lifestyle in the past and foreign land. It is very interesting to see a film where the cloths, houses and landscapes are very pretty.
    The recent Austen adaptations have been popular because they represent a mainstreaming of modern feminism. The male characters are also more acceptable as heroes to modern viewers and specially the female. The subtle feminism is promoted in the novels. Austen’s female characters give us a chance to compare the women’s position in our time with that of the 18th century. Each screenwriter, director and viewer sees the characters as reflecting his or her ideas of womanhood and that may be the secret of Austen film adaptations. Both feminists and traditionalists can easily claim Austen as their own. One of the best results of the adaptation is that they have inspired the discussion of both the novels and their film adaptations. Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin have written two heavily illustrate books designed i.e. The Making of Pride and Prejudice and The Making of Jane Austen’s Emma. “After the release of these films, the membership of the Jane Austen Society of North America almost doubled.” 5

The teachers have testified that the films provided their students access to the novels. The films are proved a bridge to the novels. With the release of every new film, new editors of the novels appeared and people started to read the novels. An American college teacher M. Casey Diana calls the film ‘a gateway’ to the novel.  Some viewers watch the films first and then they are inspired to read a novel for a richer, deeper and much more extended experience. “The interest in Austen and in adapting her novels has, of course, been operative all through this century. Andrew Wright describes attempts to set Pride and Prejudice to music, to rewrite the book for the stage, and so forth, and he lists more than sixty radio, television, film and stage productions of Austen’s various works between 1900 and 1975.” 6. Among the greatest attractions of Austen’s culture, whether presented by book or film, may be its devotion to manners. We may not want to live in the world of Austen, but it is fun to visit it.

  •  Edward Albert, History of English Literature (Oxford University Press: Calcutta, 1980) p.341
  • Sue Perrill, Jane Austen on Film and Television: A critical Study of the Adaptations, ed. (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, London 2002) p.3
  • Ibid. p.3.
  • Ibid. p.4.
  • Ibid. p.8.
  • Linda Troost & Sayre Greenfield, Jane Austen in Hollywood, ed. (The University Press of Kentucky: Kentucky 2001), p. 2.

Prof. Narendra K. Patel
Dept. of English
Shri P.K.Chaudhari Mahila Arts College
Gandhinagar, Gujarat



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