So, I know very well that the topic has had numerous treatments, but I just heard the recapitulated plot of a film titled "Lost in Austen" and the mind is still reeling.
"Lost in Austen" is another in a long line of strange rip-offs of the Jane Austen Franchise which appears to be as popular as it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the thing that confuses the heck out of me is why there are so many of these adaptations that seemingly so little to do with the original works or author.
I just finished reading "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" last year, and I have to say that I thought it, beyond being a funny book, a very good parody of the Austen industry itself. You can put anything with Austen, robots, natural disasters, time-travel, sea monsters, and it will sell, apparently.
I've heard several theories as to Austen's ongoing popularity and have narrowed the reasons down to the following three categories:
1. Some people actually just like Austen. They know enough about the period to get a lot of the subtle humor and darkness, and they will watch the BBC adaptations for correct historical representation and wonder why exactly there's a circus at the end of "Persuasion."
2. A lot of people look to the books as a sort of relationship guide (or even a guide to life) and have read most of the originals and the fanfiction/literary criticism spin-offs (I'm sorry, I meant perfectly plausible adaptations and continuations). They tend to classify Austen with "chiclit" - which we will get to later.
3. And then there are a few people who want Regency manners to come back into style. These people seem to know the least about Austen as a person, or the period in general, and have probably not read any of the original books.
You may fall solidly into one of these categories, or share in all three, but regardless of your leaning I feel that there is something to be learned from each category taken as a whole.
For those who side with the third reason and wish that we'd all bow to each other, engage in country dances, and never travel on Sunday, well, I can't help but think that this is a very impractical wish fulfillment.
The manners of Austen's time were nice and polite, and governed by exacting notions of propriety (as far as we know, since, hey, none of us was there), but there are a lot of things that go with that (things that we often prefer to ignore) such as the fact that financial stability doesn't really exist for women outside of marrying wealthy men ("P&P," "S&S," "MP," "NA," "Persuasion") or having a rich dad and no brothers ("Emma"). Also, I'd like to note that as for men behaving like gentlemen, if you think about it it's often hard to find a gentleman in Austen's novels.
Take, for instance, the ever popular P&P: That's two gentlemen, Bingley and Darcy (by today's standards, i.e. kind, considerate, able to provide, honest, sexually moral, financially responsible, family oriented, etc) against Mr. Bennet (financially and parentally irresponsible), Wickham (charmingly amoral), Capt. Fitzwilliam (kind, but unable to provide), Mr. Collins (insensitive nit wit, though financially stable), and a slew of idiot soldiers and absentee fathers and guardians.
Not good odds. And P&P has the pick of the crop with 2 gentlemen in one novel! The rest of the Austen cannon has, arguably, only one gentleman per book! (If you doubt me, go back through and actually try to find the responsible men.) Usually they are the heroine's choices, but not always (especially if there are two heroines) - sometimes the girls have to settle.
In any case, gentlemen, like good manners, are not abundant in Austen and their very absence is usually the focus of the plot. So I don't understand the longing for a utopia of manners that doesn't seem to exist, even in Austenland. Anyway, we have manners in the here and now as well...and what's even better: the vote and property rights.
The second category is one I can understand only slightly better. Looking for guidance in relationships you can find either patient women (Anne Eliot being the prime example, with Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet, and Fanny Price behind her) or assertive women (Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, and maybe even Catherine Morland - she's sort of on the fence). Take charge in your relationships (if you dare to and financially can) or be willing to wait, or marry the guy with the money. Far from championing love matches, I think Austen often asks: is love so important? Rarely does anyone advise against marrying for money (which, btw, equals security) unless the partner is truly hideous like Mr. Collins. Remember that Elizabeth tells us that she first started to love Darcy after she saw Pemberley. Purely altruistic? I think not. Nor does anyone of her heroines marry a penniless man for the sake of love. All of these marriages come with a home, respectability, and connections (except for Anne Eliot, who may or may not be living on a ship - no one will ever be sure). The closest we get to matches based on love are Lydia Bennet and Wickham (awful!) and Marianne's attachment to Willoughby.
I don't think I will ever forget the moment in "The Jane Austen Book Club" (which I liked, over all) when the misguided French teacher, on her way to a tryst with a not-so-good-looking sixteen year old (yuck), sees the words "What Would Jane Do?" on the cross signals. I kid you not.
To sum up, what actual lessons can we take from Jane Austen (assuming, naturally, that her books are intended to be used as self-help relationship guides)?
1. That we all have crappy family members and we just have to deal with them.
2. That "happiness, in marriage, is entirely a matter of chance" or very careful deliberation (and financial security).
3. That being poor and dependent is worse than not being in a relationship.
4. Never trust a parson or other religiously self-important persons.
But I do think she'd be a bit surprised by the fans who take her "laws of love" (again, I kid you not) so seriously. I think she'd find them a bit too Byronic.
Which of course would be anathema to a proper Austenite.