“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Recently I wrote a couple articles confessing my love of fairy tales. And, considering the abundance of fairy tales on prime time television, I conclude I’m not alone. But it got me to thinking about another love many of us share: Jane Austen.
We’ve known and loved her for years, but Colin Firth helped launch her to the stratosphere in 1996… And she’s still soaring. Now the fact that her works are brilliant portrayals of human nature, family life and the societal realties and constraints of her time, may have something to do with it – but I don’t think it explains it all…
I believe Austen’s stories resonate with us because they carry some of the same truths we find in fairy tales: choices need to be made, living requires courage, and good and evil exist in the world. And, for our modern audiences, some of the same story elements: reversals of fortune, “happily ever after” endings, consequences for wrong actions and “once upon a time” locales. After all, does any place take on a more romantic aura than the Regency period? Even if we know living there was a problematic business.
Austen would, I suspect, not like the correlation I’m drawing. And during her lifetime, it could not be made – at least as far as the story elements above. Her stories were not written as “Once Upon a Time’, but rather as accurate, and often satirical reflections, on her society – its hypocrisies, limitations and realities. It’s the two hundred year lapse that makes my musings possible.
And yet, even she might allow some latitude on my assertion. The Grimm brothers and Austen were writing at the same time, and reacting to the same world influences. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, the year before the Grimm brothers released Nursery and Household Tales, and Pride and Prejudice was released the year after. While the Grimm brothers worked to codify and unite German traditions in a turbulent time, Austen’s stories laud domestic stability and, even tranquility, amidst a tumultuous canvas as well. Like the Grimms, her writing preserves a moment, while giving her readers a glimpse of what may be lost – as portrayed through lives and tensions of her sailors and soldiers.
It is this connection, this seeking for a “moment,” which, I believe, fuels our present fascination. And fairy tales and Jane Austen always deliver. In the books, we are drawn to brilliant depictions and characters, and in the modern adaptations for both, we are transported though elaborate sets, gorgeous costumes, carefully reigned passion and the continued assurance that all will end well. Snow White will defeat the Queen, Cinderella will leave her stepmother victoriously, Darcy will marry Elizabeth and Henry Crawford will never enjoy a truly happy day… Ever after.