I confess – I am reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time and it is my first taste of Jane Austen. This is almost heresy for a romance novelist who has been “in” the world of romance for decades AND has an elder sister who taught Austen and Shakespeare to high school girls for twenty years. My excuse for not reading Jane was because I write contemporary stories and have a few favorite historical romance novelists who I know have read Jane, so that was enough for me.
I recently chose to watch and study contemporary romantic comedies as research for my career as a novelist. It’s a tough way to spend my evenings – rom-coms with tea and wine.
It wasn’t a deliberate choice to absorb and dissect romantic comedies by watching them numerous times to hear the vocal cadence and notice background props, then study all the special features and directors commentary. My rom-com evenings began because of the NBA strike a few years ago; when the games finally began that season they were nightly for months. In self defense for evening entertainment of my choice, I checked out movies from the library to watch in my office – with headphones. The headphones were why I chose movies instead of books as I could then block out the cheers and jeers exploding from the living room during each basketball game.
My discovery of Austen is because our library selection was limited and I began shopping through the DVD’s at my local Goodwill store. In the past three years I have amassed a good sized collection of romantic comedies that I missed (since “Sleepless in Seattle”) seeing in theaters, or even when they were released on video. Recent DVD’s now have special features like the 15th Anniversary edition of “You’ve Got Mail” includes a chat with the stars and director/writer reminiscing about making the movie – and why it is timeless.
The DVD that introduced me to Austen is “The Jane Austen Book Club” that was released in 2008, though I only got it a few months ago. It includes a documentary on the life of Jane Austen and a feature by the director explaining how and why she adapted the stories from the novel. The first time I watched this movie it was a little confusing as I hadn’t read any of Austen’s books but I could totally relate to the Bernadette character (Kathy Baker) and I adored Grigg (Hugh Dancy). Now that I’ve watched it a few times, I can recognize references to Jane’s books in other contemporary movies. When I saw a nice and new copy of Pride and Prejudice on the bookshelf I decided it was time I read it. I know now that Jane was a contemporary novelist which invalidates my initial excuse for avoiding her books.
I have to admit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is not a gripping page turner. Knowing how the story ends, even though it is my first time reading the words on the page, does not devalue my enjoyment. I’m reading it as if it is an inspirational book of poetry, a chapter or two per day.
This is very different than the mid-1980’s when I first entered the world of romance novels. A new friend handed me a paper grocery sack stacked to the brim with Harlequin and Silhouette novels of every contemporary romance genre. As a stay at-home-mom with two toddlers and out-of-state from family and friends, I read a book or two every day. Fortunately my friend had amassed four full paper sacks of novels by the time she shared the first with me. She was also a stay-at-home mom living out-of-state from her family and friends but back in Georgia she was part of a book club of sorts where each would buy at least one book a week then swap the books with each other. I never learned the details of how often they swapped, or if there was any story discussion included. It was enough to know groups of women read romance novels as part of their daily routine.
I’ve often compared the appeal of romance novels to sport competitions so it is a delightful irony that it was a concentration of basketball games that led me to immerse myself into romantic comedies. And now I’m exploring why 200 year-old cute courtship novels are still beloved as great literature and have birthed an entire world. As a contemporary novelist I’ve made notes of a couple points revealed through all the dissection of these six novels through the movie and special features, which I’m sharing here now. Feel free to add your insights in the comments.
First there is the writing style of beautiful words presented so they almost dance across the page. The ironic tone makes the author voice delightful. Those are exclusive to Jane Austen but authors today can create their own style and voice to rise above the noise of novels that have saturated booklists.
Family and social pressure themes run through all Jane’s novels and it can be argued that such pressures are in many classic and beloved stories whether on the page or screen. There is often the misunderstood man that the women never get, but Austen grants her men a chance to explain themselves and become a worthy romantic hero.
The most important point I feel is that Austen takes her protagonists on a journey to a more self-examined life. I love that description of the internal character arc, self-examined. True happiness comes from within when we honestly examine our self. This may be the reasons readers continue to take the journey with Austen’s ensembles in each novel, to examine the self in a well ordered world where nothing happens in haste.
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