If my last post was too snarky, then this one might be a little too reflective. I had planned to write something else this month, but after a few comments on my post last month, I altered my plans.
At least one reader did not catch my teasing tone, but along the way, I got personally insulted. I expected disagreement, but what I saw was something I’ve seen many times over now. An assumption, perhaps based on my age or the fact that I don’t worship Colin Firth and/or the 1995 BBC production, that I am more of a fan of fan fiction and media adaptations than the book.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
And this form of reader discrimination is something I’ve seen in reviews. Readers deride about other readers’ comprehension of the original.
I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was seventeen for a school reading assignment. We had previously read Jane Eyre. I expected another book like Jane Eyre and was incredibly surprised to read wit and sarcasm instead. Nor did I expect a romance. My other big reading influence from the nineteenth century was Little Women, and so even when I read Jane Eyre, I recognized the story was about character development and not the romantic attachment. I’ll never forget how surprised I was by Mr. Darcy’s proposal. I’m certain I was as astonished as Elizabeth!
I reread it at least three times that year. At one point, I checked out the entire 1995 mini-series from the library. I thought it was ok. It didn’t match what was in my head and chalked it up to being adapted differently for TV. Such was the case with my Little Women experiences. Period novels do not always make interesting films for contemporary viewers.
During college, I took a heavy course load in attempts of graduating early. I worked nearly full time and got married when I was nineteen. I majored in history with minors in political science (wasn’t offered as a major at my university) and English literature. In short, I was required to do a lot of reading and writing. I kept coming back to Austen in my very limited free time, though. My favorite English professor knew I’d try to work her or Alcott into a paper at least once during the semester.
When the 2005 film came out, I hated it.
I was first told about fan fiction by that favorite English professor. I turned my nose up at it. Once finished with college, I read Austen in a continuous cycle. I wouldn’t even try other authors. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second child in 2013, after watching the North and South miniseries, that I finally tried Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Well, we know how that turned out!
Around that time I started watching the 2005 film more as well. Baby feedings meant more time for TV viewing than I ever had before, but not enough to watch a 5 part series. Somewhere around viewing number five or six, I realized I was falling in love with the film. At first I only saw the flaws. I saw scenes that were not translated in a literal sense from the book. I saw departures in decorum and dress. But what I finally noticed was it captured the mood I had always felt when reading the book.
Now, I mention all this to say, that I know many people whose first experience with Jane Austen has been through a media adaptation. So it makes me sad to see that derided, especially when it’s matter of preferring one version over another. It is foolish to cast aside millions of fans and say they must not understand Jane Austen correctly because they watched “the movie” (whichever one they mean by that) first.
I have two children. My son just turned five and has watched a few adaptations with me. He loves Mr. Darcy. The other day in the car I asked him why.
“Because he’s pretty and cute!” he told me.
“Is there any other reason?”
“No. I just care that he’s pretty and cute!”
You know what? That’s totally acceptable. I went on to tell him Darcy’s great qualities but, there is nothing wrong with first enjoying the character through a film portrayal. Eventually, I’ll get him to read the book, just like all the others who went on to read the book after watching a film.
We all have our path to Austen and derivative works of her greatness. So, let’s set aside the bickering and condescension. Jane wouldn’t want that. Let’s stop setting ourselves up to be Lady Catherines or Fanny Dashwoods.
Maybe you love Matthew MacFadyen or Colin Firth. Maybe you’ve always longed for an adaptation with Richard Armitage as Darcy (drool). Maybe you prefer Wentworth over Darcy. Or Colonel Brandon or Knightley. Or gasp! Even Edward Ferrars or Edmund Bertram.
There’s not one way to find or love Austen. She’s there for us all. You’re entitled to your opinion. Your interpretation is great. Your taste is great. Whether you first found Austen from a Lifetime airing of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, Emma Thompson’s brilliance in the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, read the book in school, or have been a devoted Austen scholar for fifty years. And I think that’s the attitude Jane would want us to have: respectful but firm, don’t take trash talk from anyone but not arrogant or condescending.