Okay. Now I Know Why People (Think They) Don’t Like Jane Austen

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a live performance of Sense and Sensibility at my local theater.  It’s an excellent theater, and the well-regarded playwright Jon Jory adapted Jane Austen’s novel for the stage.  I had read advance press about the play and was very excited about Jory’s admiration for Austen’s works and his adaptation’s faithfulness to it.  (I remember enjoying Jory’s award-winning adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which I saw at Actors in 2008; alas! I wish I could remember more of the performance!)

I enjoyed the play.  I went with my mom (thanks, Mom!), we’re both Austen fans, we were definitely glad we went.  And yet I was disappointed.  I wanted better.  I wanted more.

There is a point in the play at which the passionate sister Marianne (“Sensibility”) falls to her knees in agony when she’s curtly dismissed by the man she loves, and whom she is sure loves her.  And when her sensible, staid sister Elinor (“sense”) is asked what the trouble is, Elinor replies, “She is the victim of expectations.”

As am I.  Jory’s adaptation wasn’t bad.  I thought Helen Sadler made a brilliant Marianne, Elinor was decent, if a little borish, and the supporting characters were all solid.  My only major moment of pain was the horrible Scottish brogue of the doctor attending Marianne in the second act.

But Jory tried way too hard to be funny.  Jane Austen is funny, and more: she’s wise and witty and brilliant.  She doesn’t need a humor boost.  But Jory inserted a few running gags into the script that made for screwball comedy.  The plot was largely intact, and it played.  But the insistent injections of ill-timed humor didn’t.  And trying too hard is never funny.

Looking out over the audience (which was 80% female), I wondered:  how many of us were devoted Jane Austen fans, and how many were just giving her a try tonight?  Because if you were in the audience last night, and you’d never read a word of Jane Austen, I can understand how you might think you didn’t like her work:  Jane Austen seems to be about empire waists, British accents, running gags, and outdated, overblown concerns about manners and morals.

That’s a shame, because Jane Austen is well worth reading, just as she is.  She shines brilliantly on her own, she doesn’t need any “boost” of added humor, or costuming, or wit.  Austen understands people–who they are, and why they do what they do–and she translates them to page so well.  Her characters are wonderful, and they leap off the page0–even 200 years after they were first written.  Austen’s characters don’t need any canned jokes in order to shine.

If you’ve never read Austen, don’t assume she’s not to your taste just because you’re not into Regency dress and old English houses.  Give her a try!  I suggest you start with one of my own (constantly shifting) favorites:  Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Persuasion. (Those links are all for free Kindle editions.  And yes, Jane Austen has 6 major works, and I am listing half of them as favorites.  It’s too hard to choose just one!)

Jon Jory says he’s currently working on an adaptation of Persuasion.  My expectations persist in running high, and I’ll be there when it hits the stage at my theater.

But please, Mr. Jory, don’t try too hard this time.  Jane Austen shines without it.

Are you an Austen fan?  Which book is your favorite?

*All you Austen fans will want to check out the series The Definitive Guide to Pride and Prejudice on Film, which reviews the Pride and Prejudice film adaptations from 1940, 1980, 1995 and 2005.


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  1. Stephanie says:

    Oh, I love Jane Austen!

    My favourites are “Pride and Predjudice” (I love the first sentences), “Emma”, “Sense and Sensibility” – oh no, I have to stop, but I could list them all, because I like every one so much.

    Till now, I’ve read J. Austen in German, but I got the Kindle editon and want to read the original books now.

  2. It’s the idea of not judging a book by its movie.

    I love Austen. But, then again, I had never seen any movies before reading one of her books. My favorite is Pride and Prejudice. It has a special place in my heart, because I read it during the first stages of my relationship with my husband {we were “just friends” but both leaning towards more, without really having the courage to say it to the other}. Every time I re-read it, I’m reminded of all those feelings from the first time I read it. And it makes the book that much sweeter.

  3. Lucky says:

    I am! I am!

    I first read Pride and Prejudice as a school assignment when I studied abroad in Cambridge, England. We took a trip to Bath and read Jane. Since, I’ve loved P&P and read it quite a few times (just started it again this morning as a matter of fact — I still have my Dover Thrift Edition I bought in Bath with all of my undergraduate highlighting in it), but over the years I’ve developed a soft spot for the character of Emma. I know she’s probably not meant to be likable through most of the book, but I can’t help it.

    I mostly stick to P&P and Emma, and never have read Persuasion, so I should broaden my horizons a little bit.

    Thanks for the review on the play.

  4. Hannah says:

    Persuasion is my favorite…at least some of the characters lend themselves more to humor. Hopefully it won’t be a bust, like Sense and Sensibility…probably one of the more serious of Austen’s books. I absolutely love it too, though. I often switch favorites, but today Persuasion wins out!

  5. pidge says:

    I just followed a link to your blog … and I felt this crazy need to answer this question. lol. My favorite is Northange Abby {which wasn’t even mentioned …} I think I enjoy reading it more because there is a lot of humor in it and a lot of dialoge. Also the characters act more “normal” and this may be off-putting to some, but it makes it more accessible. Granted, I’d take any of the books at any time too! 🙂

  6. Anne says:

    Those are my favorites too. I never could bring myself to like Fanny Price. In college, I was lucky enough to take a grad level course on Austen. It was wonderful!

  7. I know what you mean. Some people I know say they don’t like Jane Austen, but their only exposure to her works is (often unaccurate) portrayals on screen and stage. That easily gives them the idea that Jane Austen is all about regency dresses and tea parties.

  8. Maria says:

    I adore Jane Austen! My favourites have to be:

    Pride & Prejudice – So romantic! We have the BBC adaptation to thank for bringing the wonderful Colin Firth into our lives.

    Emma – Hugely entertaining! And I love the fact that one of my favourite films of all time, Clueless, is based on it.

    Mansfield Park – I think it’s a great story. Full of twists and turns. I love the film adaptation with Frances O’Conner. The music by Lesley Barber is phenomenal.

    Maria xx

  9. Sylvia Gunawan says:

    I am one of the oddballs who cannot, for the life of me, finish an Austen book. My first attempt was “Emma” and it was enough to call it quits with Austen. I tried my best, I really did! 30% in and still I was more repulsed than hooked. I do not see the appeal that many clamored about. The slow pace is also slowly killing me. I apologize to Jane Austen fans, but I was and still am desperate to fall in love with her. How I wish I can appreciate Austen so I get to collect the beautiful leather bound sets. Alas, we are not meant to be like oil and water, a bad marriage match which I have inevitably turned down.

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