Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Pride and Prejudice" in the Modern World

Biography of Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, to Rev. George Austen and the former Cassandra Leigh in Steventon, Hampshire. Like the families in many of her novels, the Austens were a large family of respectable lineage but no fortune. She was one of eight children. 

Cassandra Austen's ''Portrait of Jane Austen'' (1810). Watercolor and pencil.
Although she never married, her letters to her sister, Cassandra, and other writings reveal several romantic entanglements, including a very brief engagement (which lasted only one evening). She moved several times around the English countryside, and biographical information about her work is somewhat sketchy.

She began to write as a teenager but kept her work hidden from all but her immediate family. Legend has it that while she was living with relatives after her father’s death in 1805, she asked that a squeaky hinge on the room’s swinging door not be oiled. This way, she would have enough time to hide her manuscripts before someone entered the room.

Her brother Henry helped her sell her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, to a publisher in 1811. Her father unsuccessfully tried to get a publisher to look at her novel First Impressions when she completed it in 1797.  Later renamed Pride and Prejudice, it was published in 1813 to highly favorable reviews. Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and Emma in 1816. The title page of each book referred to one or two of Austen’s earlier novels—capitalizing on her growing reputation—but did not provide her name.

In 1816, she began to suffer from ill health. At the time, it was thought to be consumption but is now thought to have been Addison's disease. She travelled to Winchester to receive treatment and died there on July 18, 1817, at age 41.

Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together posthumously in December 1817 with a “Biographical Notice” written by her brother Henry, in which Jane Austen was finally revealed as the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.

By Kimberly Colburn

Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are not uncommon (see The Ascension of Austen, below), but South Coast Repertory’s production promises to be anything but common. It starts with a fluid, highly theatrical adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Sullivan is a long-time director, and Hanreddy was the artistic director of Milwaukee Rep for more than 30 years; their understanding of dramatic structure onstage is extensive. It’s reflected in the way they’ve deftly captured Austen’s world and her beloved characters. Lovers of the novel will appreciate the extensive use of direct quotes from Austen’s text, but those who have never before heard of the Bennet girls will be able to discover this rich, detailed world and follow the story with ease.

Set rendering by Kate Edmunds
Directing an adaptation of this challenging scope—based on a beloved novel, 21 actors in the Regency period, multiple balls, characters travelling the English countryside—is a demanding prospect. SCR’s production is led by director Kyle Donnelly, who has been a professional director for the past 30 years, working in many of America’s top regional theatres. She directed SCR’s production of Tom Walker by John Strand in 2001. She also heads the acting program at UC San Diego, one of the finest in the country. Several of the cast members are her former students, including Corey Brill, who is playing Mr. Darcy.

Set rendering by Kate Edmunds
Donnelly said she wanted to illustrate the connections that this classic tale has for today's young people. Would a modern teenager fall in love with this story as generations past have? How does this story have relevance for contemporary society? Where and how does the story connect to our modern world? Her approach looks at how this tale might be filtered through the eyes of a modern young girl. If a young girl today picked up this book, how might she see it?

Set rendering by Kate Edmunds
Donnelly’s Pride and Prejudice is set in Regency England, but the production elements are very contemporary, utilizing multi-media, including extensive video projections, to maintain the fluidity of the story. Led by noted scenic designer Kate Edmunds and assisted by projection coordinator Adam Flemming, video allows the scenes to flow freely and quickly from one to the next, keeping the story moving at a brisk pace and giving a strong sense of place.  Oddly enough, the technology enables the production to be more faithful to the events of the period novel.

Composer Michael Roth was in rehearsal nearly every day, creating original music for the production. Costume designer Paloma Young’s period-inspired costumes are elegant and richly detailed. The production team also includes lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and choreographer Sylvia C. Turner.

To meet the cast of Pride and Prejudice, click here.

Jane Austen
The Ascension of Austen
By Kimberly Colburn

Jane Austen didn’t intend to be famous. During her lifetime, she only published anonymously, as “A Lady.” Few people outside of her family knew that she wrote her novels. Despite the large part that romance and courting play in her books, she never married. When she died in 1817 at age 41, her gravestone only cited that she was the daughter of local Reverend George Austen. (In an essay about Austen, W. Somerset Maugham commented, “It just shows that you may make a great stir in the world and yet sadly fail to impress the members of your own family.”) It wasn’t until 1872 that Winchester Cathedral added the note to her memorial that she was “known to many by her writings.”

How did Austen’s work, particularly Pride and Prejudice, soar to the level of ubiquitous popularity it currently enjoys?

Her novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma grew in popularity and made a modest sum while Jane was still alive—around 600 pounds in six years, which is roughly equivalent to $60,000 today. At the time, novels were not considered great literature; they were seen more like pulp fiction. Poets were the real celebrities. For comparison, Byron’s book of poems, The Corsair, sold 10,000 copies on the day it was published in 1814. Emma was published the same year but took six months to sell 1,250 copies.

Austen’s modest reputation ebbed until about 50 years after her death, when her niece J.E. Austen-Leigh published A Memoir of Jane Austen. The memoir was wildly popular and renewed interest in Austen’s novels at a time when the genre of the novel had gained new levels of respectability and popularity. The term “Janeites” was coined in a preface to an 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice to describe Austen admirers.

In the early twentieth century, references to Austen and her novels began cropping up in other texts. Mark Twain expressed distaste for Austen’s writing in 1897’s Following the Equator, insisting that an ideal library would not have her books in it. Given that Mark Twain aimed verbal slings at other classic authors, this may have merely signaled Austen’s transition to “serious literature.” In 1913, Virginia Woolf compared Jane Austen to Shakespeare. In 1926, Rudyard Kipling published a short story called “The Janeites,” about a soldier recalling how he was forced to join a secret society of devoted Austen fans. Through the 1930s and 40s, Austen’s books were increasingly included in classrooms and academia.

It may be the numerous dramatizations of her stories that solidified Austen’s superstar status. Starting in 1940 with Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, popular film culture began mining Austen for inspiration and churning out three to seven film versions of Austen novels per decade. Pride and Prejudice adaptations you might remember include Colin Firth’s turn as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC version and the recent 2005 movie with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth. Or did you catch the 2004 Bollywood version, Bride and Prejudice?

If you include the category of work “based on” or “inspired by” Pride and Prejudice, the list grows exponentially. In film, there’s You’ve Got Mail in 1998, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the same love-hate relationship model as Elizabeth and Darcy. Bridget Jones’ Diary, both the novels and the films, pay homage to Pride and Prejudice—the initially surly fellow is named Mark Darcy. Author Stephanie Meyer admits the novel Twilight is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice—the dashing Edward Cullen is at first cold and rude to Bella, later citing their differences in lifestyle as the reason he tried to keep her at arm’s length. In 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up of Pride and Prejudice and modern zombie fiction. He left large portions of Austen’s original text intact but modified the world of Regency England to include ninjas and zombies. There are also dozens of sequels to Pride and Prejudice, imagining the lives of the characters after the original ends.

This chronology merely traces how Austen and her works exploded in popularity in the more than 200 years since her death, but not why. As bestselling author and journalist Anna Quindlen wrote, “Serious literary discussions of Pride and Prejudice threaten to obscure the most important thing about it: it is a pure joy to read.”

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