Jane Austen:  Novels and Films

In the last decade there have been a number of films based on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels. Authors such as Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and E.M. Forster have been reintroduced to late twentieth-century audiences through film--and through film a new generation of readers has rediscovered the novels of these writers.  But one author has enjoyed a particularly strong resurgence of interest:  Jane Austen.  Not only have four of her novels been adapted for the screen during the '90s, but one novel, Emma, was adapted into three different films in less than two years.  These adaptations have been both popular and critical successes.

The English author Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817. Her novels are highly prized not only for their light irony, humor, and depiction of contemporary English country life, but also for their underlying serious qualities.  In this course we will be examining the novels and film adaptations of Austen, utilizing close readings of the texts, screenplays, and films, and exploring cultural contexts then and now to discuss the works.

Jane Austen was born December 16th, 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire, England. She was the seventh child (out of eight) and the second daughter (out of two), of the Rev. George Austen, 1731-1805 (the local rector, or Church of England clergyman), and his wife Cassandra, 1739-1827 (née Leigh).  He had a fairly respectable income of about £600 a year, supplemented by tutoring pupils who came to live with him, but was by no means rich.

Jane Austen did a fair amount of reading, of both the serious and the popular literature of the day (she wrote that she and her family were "great novel readers, and not ashamed of being so").  However decorous she later chose to be in her own novels, she was very familiar with eighteenth century novels, such as those of Fielding and  Richardson, which were much less inhibited than those of the later, Victorian era. She also enjoyed the novels of Fanny Burney.  In fact, she got the title for Pride and Prejudice from a phrase in Burney's Cecilia, and when Burney's Camilla came out in 1796, one of the subscribers was "Miss J. Austen, Steventon."  The three novels that she praised in her famous "Defense of the Novel" in Northanger Abbey were Burney's Cecilia and Camilla, and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda.

Jane Austen wrote her juvenilia from 1787 to 1793; they include many humorous parodies of the literature of the day, such as Love and Freindship, and are collected in three manuscript volumes. They were originally written for the amusement of her family, and most of the pieces are dedicated to one or another of her relatives or family friends.  Earlier versions of the novels eventually published as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey were all begun and worked on from 1795 to 1799 (at this early period, their working titles were Elinor and Marianne, First Impressions, and Susan respectively). Lady Susan was also probably written during this period. In 1797, First Impressions/Pride and Prejudice was offered to a publisher by Jane Austen's father, but the publisher declined to even look at the manuscript.

In 1803 Jane Austen actually sold Northanger Abbey (then titled Susan) to a publisher, for the far-from-magnificent sum of £10; however, the publisher chose not to publish it (but it was not published until 14 years later, after she had died).  Sense and Sensibility was accepted in late 1810 or early 1811 by a publisher for publication at Austen's own risk. It appeared anonymously ("By a Lady") in October 1811, and at first only her immediate family knew of her authorship:  Fanny Knight's diary for September 28, 1811 records a "Letter from Aunt Cass. to beg we would not mention that Aunt Jane wrote Sense and Sensibility"; and one day in 1812 when Jane Austen and Cassandra and their niece Anna were in a "circulating library" at Alton, Anna threw down a copy of Sense and Sensibility on offer there, "exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by, 'Oh that must be rubbish, I am sure from the title.'" There were at least two fairly favorable reviews, and the first edition eventually turned a profit of £140 for her.

Encouraged by this success, Jane Austen turned to revising First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice). She sold it in November 1812, and her "own darling child" (as she called it in a letter) was published in late January 1813.  She had already started work on Mansfield Park by 1812, and worked on it during 1813.  It was during 1813 that knowledge of her authorship started to spread outside her family; as Jane Austen wrote in a letter of September 25th 1813: "Henry heard  P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robert Kerr & another Lady; -- & and what does  he do in the warmth of his brotherly vanity and Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!"  Since she had sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice outright for £110 (presumably in order to receive a convenient payment up front, rather than having to wait for the profits on sales to trickle in), she did not receive anything more when a second edition was published later in 1813.  A second edition of Sense and Sensibility was also published in October 1813. In May 1814, Mansfield Park appeared, and was sold out in six months; she had already started work on Emma. which was published in December 1815.  She had started on Persuasion in August 1815, and finished it in August 1816--although during 1816 she was becoming increasingly unwell.  In early 1817 she started work on another novel, Sanditon, but had to give it up in March.  Persuasion was posthumously published in 1818.

On April 27th she made her will (leaving almost everything to Cassandra), and on May 24 she was moved to Winchester for medical treatment.  She died there on Friday, July 18, 1817, aged 41. The true nature of her illness is still a mystery, but the British Medical Journal published an article (18 July 1964) by Zachary Cope suggesting that the cause of her death was likely Addison's Disease.  She was buried in Winchester Cathedral on July 24, 1817.

Austen once compared her writing to painting a picture on "a little bit of ivory, 2 inches
square," and the tight focus and fine detail in all of her novels bear this out.  Perhaps it is the concentrated interest in the individual that has kept her from becoming dated, and allowed her to remain one of the most popular authors of all time.

Several of Jane Austen's novels have been filmed.  Pride and Prejudice first was made into a film in 1941 starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier (but beware!  the ending and parts of the text are greatly altered).  In the 1980s, the BBC made film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, each as a six-part series.  All have appeared in North America on the PBS Masterpiece Theatre.  A two-hour, made-for telvision movie of Northanger Abbey was also produced in England.  In the 1990s the BBC has been working with A&E and has produced a new six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1996) and a two-hour movie of Emma (1997).  Also several commercial film versions of the works of Jane Austen have been released within the last five years, including Clueless (1995), Emma (1996), Persuasion (1995), and Sense and Sensability (1996).  We will be watching, critiquing, and comparing the majority of these works.   We will also read Emma Thompson's screen play and journal for the 1996 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

much of the above information is taken from the Jane Austen Information Page



A useful web page (with numerous links, including critical essays and hypertext editions of the novels) is the Jane Austen Information Page.  For information about the film adaptations, see James Dawe's Jane Austen Page.


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