‘Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Creators Will Tackle Emma

Good news: Bernie Su and Hank Green, creators of the delightful, award-winning online series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” are turning their attention to Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

A modern, technologically savvy retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” went viral as Su and Green not only posted 9 1/2 hours of video on YouTube, but created profiles for the characters to interact with each other and with their audience on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Its modernization and high tech appeal aside, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” stayed faithful to the spirit, characters and core story of Jane Austen’s most popular work.

Su and Green will take a similar approach to “Emma Approved,” which will debut in October. This Emma will be a 20-something life coach, entrepreneur and social media maven, who with her business partner Alex (Mr. Knightley, I presume?) manages her lifestyle brand, Emma Approved.

Interviewed in the LA Weekly, Su said he chose Emma for his next project because she is an ” ‘ends justify the means’ character with a heart of gold” who has good intentions, even if she’s clueless. “Given that she’s so driven and has a lot of resources, she’s incredibly powerful,” he said.

Especially with YouTube and Facebook at her disposal.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

Today is the 237th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth, and we’re rapidly approaching the 200th anniversary of her most famous novel, “Pride and Prejudice.”

Like all Austen fans, I could go on and on about Jane, but I’ll keep it short: How many authors are still popular 200 years after they’re first published? Not many, that’s for sure.

Way to go, Jane!

Even Austen Needed an Editor

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that behind every good writer stands a good editor. Jane Austen was no exception, according to a BBC News story that’s been widely picked up by various news outlets.

While studying 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished writings, Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University found plenty of blots, crossed out words and sentences, and “a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing.” Austen, she says, also was far more experimental and even better at writing dialogue than her published works suggest.

Sutherland says William Gifford, an editor who worked for Austen’s publisher, most likely was the one who polished and honed Austen’s prose.

Sutherland’s research forms part of an initiative by King’s College London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the British Library in London to create an online archive of Austen’s handwritten fiction manuscripts. The project will launch this Monday (October 25). As I’ve noted earlier, Austen’s history of England already is online.

Those of us who write for a living aren’t surprised by the fact that what one writes and what gets in print aren’t always the same thing. Nor are we surprised that Austen’s prose is constantly being edited and rewritten to render it suitable for a modern medium, film.

On its radio news, as an example of how Austen’s editor polished her scribblings into memorable prose, CBS featured a voice clip of Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” passionately begging Lizzy “to end my suffering and consent to be my wife.”

While that declaration brings goosebumps to those of us who are convinced Mr. Firth was Mr. Darcy in a previous life, it does not appear anywhere in Austen’s famous novel. It’s an invention of screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Samuel Clemens vs. Jane Austen: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Chicago Examiner recently ran a fun list of the “50 Best Author vs. Author Putdowns of All Time.” The collection of gloriously vicious insults includes one of Mark Twain’s many stabs at Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain in 1909

The irascible Mark Twain never tired of skewering Jane Austen.

Twain (Samuel Clemens to his friends and family) also wrote that “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” and lamented that “it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

Ironically, that sounds just like the kind of barbed stuff Austen would write. Twain and Austen are two of my favorite authors, precisely because they are so adept at throwing literary darts. Austen had a much narrower focus and a much more contained life than did Twain, but in a lot of ways they aimed at similar targets.

I find Twain’s reference to “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” a trifle suspicious. Just how many times did he read it, anyway? I’m not the only one to think that perhaps Twain doth protest too much about Austen. An essay some years back in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” suggested that Twain’s hatred of Austen may have been at least partly a pose, and that he may have realized (albeit reluctantly)  that he and Austen shared a similar disdain for fools.

As for Twain, he didn’t escape skewering by other authors, either. William Faulkner called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” Ouch!

What Killed Jane Austen?

Like everything else about Jane Austen, her death continues to fascinate us. Literary scholars and Janeites still wonder about the illness that plagued the author for more than a year before she died at the age of 41 in July, 1817. It was during this time that she finished Persuasion, the saddest and most pensive of her novels.

In 1964, Dr. Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, killed the famous author. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue and weakness, faintness, back pain, nausea, and pain in the joints.  To Cope, though, a vital clue was skin discoloration. “Recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote in March 1817. Addison’s disease can make the skin look bronze or mottled. (Reporters often wondered why U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s Disease, had a perpetual “tan.”)

In 1997, Austen biographer Claire Tomalin begged to differ, and thought Austen’s symptoms suggested lymphoma.

Katherine White, the coordinator for the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group’s clinical advisory group in the United Kingdom, thinks something much more common killed Jane: bovine tuberculosis, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk. In a paper she wrote for the Medical Humanities journal, White (who is a social scientist, not a medical professional), argues that while Austen could have had Addison’s Disease, tuberculosis seems a more likely cause of her final illness and death.

[Read more…]

How Did Jane Austen Get So Famous?

janesfameThe Oxford Times has a short interview with Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Canongate Books), a book that I read as part of my Austen Challenge and definitely recommend.

Jane didn’t grow popular until decades after her death, but since then her books have remained constantly in print and now, nearly 200 years after the publication of her first novel, Jane Austen remains a worldwide cultural phenomenon.  The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is almost as widely used (and abused) as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”

Jane’s fame long ago eclipsed that of her novels. In fact, as Harman points out, a large number of Jane Austen fans have never actually read one of her books. (In the preface to Jane’s Fame, Harman shares an anecdote about a woman who sent the first chapters of Pride and Prejudice, bearing Austen’s original title of First Impressions and with proper names changed, to 18 British publishers. Not only did they all reject it, but apparently only one editor recognized it.)

[Read more…]

The Bitch in a Bonnet

Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.

I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.

As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.

But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.

[Read more…]

Jane Austen’s Real-Life Mr. Darcy?

Jane Austen wrote wonderfully of love and romance, yet never married herself. We know that she had romances, probably at least one of them serious, but since her sister Cassandra burned much of the correspondence between her and Jane, we can really only speculate about much of Jane’s life.

Some think law student Tom Lefroy inspired Jane to create Mr. Darcy, a notion fueled by the popular chick flick “Becoming Jane.” But in the recently published book Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, literary historian Andrew Norman believes that the real-life “Darcy” was most likely John Blackall, a theology student who first met Jane in the summer of 1798 while staying with the Lefroys, then met her again in Devon in 1802, where they fell in love. For whatever reason, the summer romance didn’t last, and may have caused a rift between the Austen sisters.

“No-one knows precisely what happened that summer or straight afterwards, because the letters [between the sisters] dry up,” said Norman in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

He believes Jane’s dispute with Cassandra helped inspire the tale of sisterly betrayal in Jane’s unfinished 1804 novel The Watsons.

I’ve ordered Norman’s book and look forward to seeing what he puts forward as evidence. Look for a “book report” soon.

Tweet, Tweet! Jane Austen in a Sentence

Stubborn woman meets proud rich man, hates him, loves him, they finally get married.

The Jane Austen Today blog posted a really fun exercise last week: Sum up a Jane Austen novel in a Tweet.

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, a Tweet is a sentence or two that you post to Twitter to tell the world what you’re doing, what you like or don’t like, what you’ve posted on your blog—you name it. The catch is that it cannot exceed 140 characters.

I contributed a comment for Emma: “Spoiled rich girl too busy playing matchmaker to realize guy friend is her own true love, but happily he’s smarter than she is and proposes.”

Ah, the possibilities are endless.

The Austen vs. Bronte Smackdown

The Bronte sisters

The Bronte sisters

Two names pretty much sum up 19th century “chick lit”: Austen and Brontë. Austen is Jane Austen, of course, who is often credited with inventing the genre. Brontë is the surname of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who wrote gothic tales of romance.

People sometimes get them  mixed up. “Jane Austen…didn’t she write Jane Eyre?” someone asked me recently. It’s amusing, really, since Austen and the Brontës wrote in radically different styles. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, wrote disdainfully of Austen:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”

Austen couldn’t return the compliment because she was dead by the time the Brontës were setting pen to paper, but Northanger Abbey nicely parodies the sort of hyper-imaginative tales the trio of sisters excelled at.

[Read more…]