This was my first Jane Austen, my first official Jane Austen, though before you gasp in horror I would add that that I’ve watched lots of the movies (!). In particular, my mom watched the “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries starring Colin Firth as the Ultimate Mr. Darcy (didn’t he even play a Darcy-inspired character in Bridget Jones’s Diary named Darcy? what!) throughout my childhood so I feel like I’ve kinda known the world all my life.
I started with Sense & Sensibility because I thought it would be way too cliché to start with Pride & Prejudice, plus I already knew the P & P story. The entirety of my familiarity with S & S was catching the end of the Ang Lee film version on cable, once– so yes, I did know who ends up with who, but other than that, totally in the dark.
And I loved it, and I loved her writing, and I loved the way the story unfolded like a circa 2000 romantic comedy, albeit with less technology, more rigid social constraints, and a good deal more eloquence. It combines the silly desperation and empathic heartbreak of, say, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” with the utterly romantic setting of the early 19th-century lower upper class Austenian English countryside. I mean, really, throw a high collar and a pair of well-placed sideburns on a guy and his attractiveness exponentially increases, with an average attractiveness rate significantly higher than your average turn-of-the-millennium flannel-wearing rom-com romantic interest (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, modern-day Colin Firth < James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Darcy-day Colin Firth. I blame this on the Darcy Complex, which modern Western-thinking women continue to inherit from their mothers.)
To see what I mean, look at these three photos. Tell me the third one doesn’t disappoint you a little bit.
For all its rommy commyness, though, Jane Austen wasn’t just writing some entertaining chick lit. Her books make commentary on class—usually the social boundaries that confine women of limited means and lower status than the men they wish to marry. There’s often some stuffy old woman looking down a wrinkled nose at our heroine (Lady Catherine in P & P, Mrs. Ferrars in S & S—speaking of, Ms. Austen was certainly a fan of the dual alliterative title!). The skill of her writing is undeniable, the unfolding of her marriage plot captivating to the very end. Her sympathetic characters are sympathetic, her villains alternately vain or cold-hearted or vacuous.
And the humor is subtle but much of it remains funny. Here’s the stylings of my favorite comedic duo from S & S, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. Mr. Palmer’s last line here is my new favorite insult.
“How charming it will be,” said Charlotte, “when he is in Parliament! — won’t it? How I shall laugh! It will be so ridiculous to see all his letters directed to him with an M.P.– But do you know, he says, he will never frank for me? He declares he won’t. Don’t you, Mr. Palmer?”
Mr. Palmer took no notice of her.
“He cannot bear writing, you know,” she continued– “he says it is quite shocking.”
“No,” said he, “I never said any thing so irrational. Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me.” (122)
Writing in the 19th century, by the way, was no joke. The conventions of the British style, with its strange phrases (“I’m monstrous tired”), run-on sentences kept alive by proliferations of commas, and over-the-top gentility in speech and letter-writing, are a constant source of amazement to me. Even Lucy Steele, described as “illiterate,” seems to write quite a letter, albeit one whose literary stylings Elinor looks down her own nose at (even the socially unfortunate heroine is guilty of the prejudices of class).
But the juiciest thing about it, for me, the thing that kept me turning pages, was the romantic comedy angle, bolstered by my empathy for the two main characters, Elinor and Marianne. If Sense & Sensibility were to be updated for 21st-century Hollywood—like Emma and Shakespeare have been before it*—it would absolutely have to involve Marianne texting—and it would go something like this.
*Emma = Clueless (1995). The Taming of the Shrew = 10 Things I Hate About You (1999).
MY SCRIPT PITCH: Sense & Sensibility & Sex & the City
The story concerns Elinor Dashwood, early 20s, interior designer, living in tony New York/L.A./San Francisco suburb of the Hamptons/Calabasas/Los Altos Hills with late teens sister Marianne (world literature major at Vassar/UCLA/Berkeley) and their completely uninteresting younger sister Margaret. They also live with an overdramatic comic-relief mother.
Cut out of their inheritance by their dolt half-brother John, an investment banker, and his terrible socialite wife Fanny, they downsize to a mission-style cottage guest house in the neighboring tony suburb of Chappaqua/Glendale/Palo Alto on the back part of retired record producer Sir John’s lot. He spends his time living off his royalties and throwing parties for rich neighbors and minor celebrities.
Sir John and his vapid legal-assistant-turned-stay-at-home-mom wife Middie constantly invite the Dashwoods to their parties, where Middie spends her time fawning over her bratty kids as they throw around their high-concept sustainable wooden toys. They meet Colonel Brandon, a rich bachelor venture capitalist, and the Steeles, two dumb sisters who went to public school and basically write in Tweetspeak.
Marianne starts dating a grad school dropout named Willoughby who she met at the gym. Meanwhile, Elinor can’t figure out what’s going on between her and her good friend Edward, a trust fund baby who spends all his time trying to find himself. They keep meeting for coffee. Are they dating or what??
Willoughby and Marianne go on “break” when he moves to the city, for an internship he says. She feels like they’ll get back together when he’s done; sort of an unspoken agreement that only Marianne knows about.
THEN, Sir John’s good-natured but silly mother-in-law invites the sisters to stay at her penthouse apartment in Manhattan/Beverly Hills/Pacific Heights over the holidays. Excited to finally be in the city, Marianne texts Willoughby nonstop, asking to see him, but gets no reply. Later, when she spots him at a club downtown with another girl, she’s heartbroken and shuts herself in her room with chocolate ice cream and soap operas for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Elinor finds out that Edward is NOT single; that he has been dating Lucy Steele, who is clearly his intellectual inferior and doesn’t even like the same books he and Elinor like, so what on earth do they talk about?? But Elinor just says she’s happy for him and cries alone in her car to a Phil Collins soundtrack. It isn’t until later that she finds out Edward was only dating Lucy because of a bet he made in high school with his football jock friend over whether he could turn her into prom queen. Or something. They break up.
Lucy ends up dating Edward’s self-absorbed younger brother (he hasn’t been cut off by his mother, unlike Edward, so he’s got the dough. Plus he’s in a rock band). And Edward finally tells Elinor he was into her the entire time! They kiss. Then run holding hands through Times Square/Santa Monica Pier/the Golden Gate Bridge.
SUBPLOT: Marianne thought Colonel Brandon was old (“he remembers the ‘80s!”) and boring until he kept showing up places and doing super nice stuff for them. When Willoughby turns out to be a total jerk, she slowly starts to see Brandon in a new light. (Camera catches long gazes from across crowded rooms where gaze-ee is speaking smilingly with friends in slightly slow motion and warm acoustic guitar music plays.) Then, super nicest of all, Brandon gives Edward a half a million to fund his start-up idea, which, after being cut out of his trust fund by his terrible mother, gives Edward enough to move in with Elinor in a humble one-bedroom in Brooklyn/West Hollywood/Berkeley. And helps him find himself. Last scene, Marianne finally agrees to go on a date with Brandon.*
*Note: Make sure to cast actors in which the age difference isn’t too creepy. 17 and 35 wouldn’t quite cut it in today’s world. Although, actually, 18 and 36 would and has (see: Sleepy Hollow, Once). Hrm.
Oh wait I forgot I’m not actually making a romantic comedy.