Monday 24 October 2011

A is for Jane Austen

This is the first post in what I hope will be an A-Z of my favourite writers.  Jane Austen is not just first on the list, but without a doubt one of my all time favourite authors.  I’ve read all of her novels, most more than once.  And enjoyed them all apart from her early attempt at Gothic horror - Northanger Abbey. 
What I find most alluring is her use of language.  Not just the famous use of irony, but the way she is able to turn a simple description or tale into a work of beauty.  It is just a great pleasure to read any of her works.  Here for example is the first sentence of Emma, where the little word seemed changes what is an apparent glowing tribute to the novel’s heroine into something like its opposite.  “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Another example of her art of using a character’s good points to expose that person’s worst aspects comes in Persuasion with this delightful and deadly character assassination of Walter Elliot.  “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
The main complaint I have about her novels is that they contain a few too many stock, comic characters that stretch the imagination to believe in.  Emma’s father for example or Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  Perhaps there were real people like them in Austen’s time.  For another of her strengths is that her novels are very much set in a particular place and time.  Nobody seriously challenges the existing order.  While her novels all feature very strong and powerful women characters, they all succeed within the existing social norms.  A good marriage and a reliable income was the sine qua non for a contented life.  Not much has really changed.
There are now so many editions of her novels available, that a reader faces an embarrassment of riches.  If you don’t want to buy a book and are happy to read from your computer screen has all her works available online for free.
Jane Austen’s works have proved very popular with film makers, both for the big screen and TV.  One of the most successful and critically acclaimed productions was the 1995 TV adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the main roles.  With six one hour episodes this mini series managed to include most of the novel’s key scenes.  
Of the film adaptations my favourite is definitely Sense and Sensibility.  And there are two fine versions to cherish.  The more well known is the 1996 version directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by Emma Thompson, who also starred in the film alongside Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.  

For something less well know and completely different I would recommend Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), the Tamil language film.  Also known as I Have Found It, this wonderful Bollywood type film is a sheer joy to watch.  Directed by Rajiv Menon who wrote the screenplay along with Sujatha.  The film stars Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Mommootty and Ajith Kumar with music by A R Rahman.  This version of Sense and Sensibility sets the action in modern day Tamil Nadu.  It works wonderfully well and the music and dance sequences are a joy to behold and hear.  If you do get a hold of a copy watch out for the song and dance sequence filmed at our very own Eilean Donan Castle in western Scotland.  To whet your appetite you can see this for yourself here.

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