Reporter's Notebook

Let’s Talk About Jane Austen
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July 18 marks 200 years since the beloved novelist’s death—or, as some of our staff superfans like to say, since Austen achieved immortality. In her honor, we’re hosting a bi-Austen-tennial celebration of essays and reader discussion. Come back every day this week for more questions and responses, and check out the rest of our Austen coverage here.

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Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Last week we asked readers to share: What’s your favorite Jane Austen-related adaptation? Or, if you prefer: What’s your least favorite? What film versions of the novels fill you with joy, or wonder, or ire? What TV shows or web series do you find compelling and true to Austen’s insights?

And: You all came through! We got several votes of enthusiasm for books like Amanda Grange’s novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary and Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, movies like Austenland, TV shows like Lost in Austen, and web series like Jane Austen’s Fight Club (for the simple but important reason that, as Lynn Gray, of Harstene Island, Washington, explains, “it’s outrageously funny”).  

We also got many, many votes for Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 adaptation of Emma. Which, as Cassie Myers of Stanford, California, explained, “captures the emotions and wit of the books, the actors are fantastic, and it reminds me why her stories are so universal.”

Or, as Tana, from Denver, put it in explaining her enthusiasm for the story of Cher Horowitz, Beverly Hills resident:

I’m not a Jane Austen fan at all—I found her novels tiring and the endless obsession with class and marriage boring (admittedly, this was as a teen. I haven’t yet revisited, and have a sneaking suspicion I’d find Pride and Prejudice tolerable today). All of that said, Clueless is fun! It was released when I was 10, and was bright and shiny enough to enthrall those of us not yet in the race for soulmates. Cher and Dionne’s “Whatever” (and Amber’s associated hand gesture) didn’t just pass through our vocabulary but entrenched itself. We wanted their closets and their cell phones.

As I got older, it’s retained that charm and added new layers, as we look back at the early careers of some of our current favorite actors. Jeremy Sisto is awful and perfect as Elton, and I can’t think of or hear The Cranberries without thinking of him. Paul Rudd is every guy you meet at a liberal arts college. Breckin Meyer!! And Brittany Murphy, beautiful, charming, hummingbird Brittany Murphy, whose Tai is so resonant and so funny that every time she’s on screen I’m laughing and crying—because she reminds me of what we lost when Murphy died. Donald Faison is luminescent. And Alicia Silverstone got Cher.

I remember the movie being marketed as the zany adventures of a ditzy blonde and her narcissistic rich LA friends—and it’s definitely that but it’s so much more. There is a wellspring of good laughs and good vibes—and some of the finest men collected in one place onscreen. Altogether, I think this is my favorite because it doesn’t feel like Austen—it isn’t taxing or laborious, but its moral and vision are strong.

The Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai dances with fellow cast members on the set of Bride and Prejudice. Sherwin Crasto / Reuters

When we asked our readers to tell us how they first encountered Austen, we got responses from all over the world—Greece, Australia, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa. One reader, Sümeyye Ceren Özkan, described reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time in a Turkish translation; several others, including Silvia from Italy, said that Austen’s novels were among the first books they read in English. But a notable pattern emerged among some Indian and Pakistani readers who said Austen’s work illuminated social strictures in their own communities. Here’s Amrit, writing from New York City:

Throughout my life I was encouraged by female relatives and the local Indian community to act, dress, and look pretty and put enormous attention into my outward appearance and reputation, as this would guarantee me successful male suitors. The same goes for my fellow Indian female friends, whose aim it was to marry and have children before 30. To them, marrying and keeping up with appearances was important.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie version with Keira Knightley that I felt inspired to begin re-reading the book at a mature age in my life (late twenties). I related to Lizzy Bennet’s character and found it baffling how many things haven’t changed in Indian society and societal norms for ladies. Lizzy comes to my mind each time I attend a social gathering and control myself from making a witty remark.

But I know that I am not alone in these experiences. I was a loner when my thoughts and actions weren’t in agreement with my female friends or society, but I felt a sense of belonging while reading Jane Austen. In a sense, her writing gave me a shield of confidence to tackle the world as an independent female and to not let anything get in the way of my individuality.

Similarly, Soniah Kamal, a Pakistani writer who now lives in Georgia, got hooked on Austenian sarcasm at 14, when she received Pride and Prejudice as a gift from her aunt:

I was a sarcastic teenager myself, much to my mother’s shame—who will marry you?—and I fell in love with Austen’s sauciness and irony. Being a girl from Pakistan, I knew marriage was my sole reason for having been born as far as society was concerned, and it wasn’t long before Jane Austen had turned into my clever Jane Khala, an honorary Pakistani Aunty, the one who had chosen to remain single against the odds. And Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Elizabeth and Charlotte, everyone, went from being characters in a beloved novel to everyday Pakistanis all around me. (I affectionately call my mother Mrs. Bennet; she used to be most un-amused but then I got married and had children and everything suddenly became very funny.)

When it came time for me to choose a spouse, I turned to Austen.