From The Atlantic:
Demand for Jane Austen far exceeds supply. When the novelist died in 1817 at the age of 41, she left only six full-length novels, plus three unpublished works and a collection of juvenilia. Yet in the two centuries since, Austen has become, as the British writer Alexander McCall Smith once put it, “a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude, and perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
She got her first screen adaptation in 1940, with Laurence Olivier playing Fitzwilliam Darcy and the Bennet sisters dressed in American-antebellum corsets and huge frilly skirts. This Pride and Prejudice set the template for what an Austen adaptation was supposed to look and sound like: primly romantic, with both clothes and characters firmly buttoned up.
The 1990s were a boom time for that approach. Think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma peeking out from under a bonnet, or Kate Winslet daintily suffering a chill in Sense and Sensibility. The BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice stuck closely to its source material, and ended with a single, chaste postnuptial kiss between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy.* The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley, veered into nauseating rom-com tweeness: A special ending for the U.S. market features the couple on the steps of Pemberley, joking about how keen Elizabeth is to be called “Mrs. Darcy.” The next fashion was to transplant Austen’s stories to new locations: Bollywood for 2004’s Bride and Prejudice, Pakistan for 2017’s Austenistan.
Today’s adapters, though, are tired of seeing the writer dismissed as a narrow chronicler of middle-class domestic gentility, and are turning to her unpublished fragments to make the case for another Jane Austen—sharp, satirical, and proto-feminist.
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Both Sanditon—which is being broadcast on Britain’s ITV and on PBS in the U.S.—and The Watsons, Laura Wade’s new play, take unfinished texts and canter off with the characters. Along with Austen’s abandoned novel Lady Susan, these pieces are spikier, more difficult, and more resistant to the bonnets-and-breeches treatment than her published works are. (Lady Susan, which was turned into 2016’s Love & Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, focuses on a widow trying to secure husbands for herself and her daughter. It is quietly radical: Imagine how different Pride and Prejudice would be told from the perspective of Mrs. Bennet.)
These new adaptations make a simple case: Costume dramas are not about wallowing in nostalgia, and Austen was not writing straightforward romances. Sanditon, for example, has an “acerbic, screwball tone,” according to its director, Olly Blackburn—in it, Austen was trying something new. “It’s like [Bob] Dylan going electric,” he told me.
At first glance, the plot of The Watsons, which is showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, is classic Austen—a young woman who has fallen on hard times tries to find a husband. As soon as Wade was commissioned to adapt the fragment for the stage, though, she realized that she had to take liberties with the material. The playwright was enough of an Austen fan, she told me, “to not want to do yet another Pride and Prejudice or whatever.”
In her play, the characters are self-aware—and notice a strange figure, named Laura, creeping around the period setting. Laura is a stand-in for the playwright herself, unable to resist seeing what an Austen story looks like from the inside. Realizing that they are actually in a play, the characters rebel against the confines of the narrative—two begin a lesbian relationship and set sail for India, and the heroine, Emma, rejects all the options available to a genteel but poor young woman in the early 19th century.
The play is funny, surreal, and full of affectionate iconoclasm. Wade sees Austen as a “brilliantly witty friend,” and was fascinated by why she abandoned The Watsons. Perhaps, Wade speculated, its premise was too close to Austen’s own life: The heroine’s father is dying, as was Austen’s when she wrote it. And after Austen discarded The Watsons, there was a gap of several years before she wrote her final three novels. (During this period, she also received a marriage proposal, which she turned down, but her reasoning is unknown, as her sister Cassandra burned her letters.)
Or maybe, Wade suggested, Austen abandoned The Watsons because she couldn’t work out which of the male characters would be a suitable match for her protagonist. “Maybe she couldn’t finish your story in the way she wanted,” the playwright-character Laura tells Emma. “She might have wanted to … make you some kind of amazing, bold, revolutionary feminist, but she thought her readers weren’t ready, or she was scared of it.” Wade said that the end of her script, which lets Emma explore the world without getting married, “felt like the more feminist thing that Jane Austen might have done if she were alive in a world where there were those possibilities.”
Link to the rest at The Atlantic
PG wonders what segment of Austen fans wants to see sex and rage.