Welcome at My Jane Austen Book Club, Kathleen and Susan! I'm always really glad when I find new Janeites to share with. Then, if they happen to be teachers of English literature like me, I become very curious. So, my first question is linked to my job, our job. Do you teach Jane Austen and what do you think young people can learn from her?
Susan: I do teach Jane Austen, especially in upper level courses where students need to connect with excellent writing. Austen models the level of perfection a writer can achieve through scrupulous review and revision: sentence clarity and style, precise word choice, understanding of audience, to name a few. You don’t reach millions of readers over two centuries without doing your homework in those areas.
Kathleen: We incorporate Austen novels into our courses whenever possible. We all have so much to learn from Jane Austen. Especially young people can become more sensitized to effective, grammatical, elegant language by absorbing her beautiful, witty narrative style. Moreover, all of the novels emphasize the importance of the feelings of others and of the preservation of the social fabric, a beneficial reminder to all of us. We often forget that we live in community.
Why Jane Austen? I mean, what are the reasons of the appeal of Jane Austen’s world for the 21st century reader?
Susan: Why does Austen appeal to the 21st century reader? I think she appeals because of her profound understanding of people and the archetypal situations that she pictures: the desire to be understood and to connect with others; the problem of dealing with difficult people whom one should not offend; the search for happiness, but not at the expense of virtue and honor, however one defines those concepts; the importance of having the courage to admit one has been wrong; and, of course, much more. Young or old, as readers, I think that we also connect with the deep sense of longing in her characters for an orderly world.
Kathleen: Many people, especially women, feel a deep nostalgic longing for old-fashioned elegance, grace, and decorum. Austen’s novels portray a world in which the best characters are models of virtue and social responsibility as well as likeable people that we’d want to have as friends. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse?
|Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones|
Jane Austen and modernity. What would her wit’s favourite targets have been if she had written nowadays?
Susan: Jane’s targets would probably not have been very much different today than they were in her novels. She loves to deflate people whose sense of themselves becomes so exalted that they cannot imagine someone else holding another opinion (at least, with any justice). Think of Mr. Collins and his ridiculous proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s spunkiest heroine; he actually thinks he is doing HER a favor. Consider Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who uses bluster to mow down opposition—until she meets Elizabeth, who will be true to her heart, no matter the cost. Who would that translate to today—political commentators? Reality show “celebrities”? Politicians? I suspect Our Jane would be able to make all of them look as petty as they really are.
Kathleen: She would probably be surprised by the many cosmetic procedures people can and do have done to “improve” their appearance, the worship of celebrity, and the fashion trends of today. And of course, there are all the things that our culture still shares with hers. Human beings continue to be hilariously flawed and silly. We all know a Mrs. Bennet, a Marianne Dashwood, a Mr. Crawford, a Mr. Woodhouse.
What would she have appreciated the most in our world, instead?
Better medical care (she probably would have lived a lot longer in our world and produced another six brilliant novels), and better opportunities for women to earn their own money and avoid the pressure to marry a Mr. Collins. Today, she’d have her own website and her own blog; she’d be twittering with the best of them; and most of all, she’d be able to live on Palm Beach or her own estate at Pemberley, if she chose to.
The huge spreading of spin-offs, sequels, mash-ups is due to a desire to preserve and Jane’s messages, atmospheres, techniques and prolong the pleasure or more to the ambition to correct and adapt what in her work is considered too distant or different?
We think that all the current Austenesque endeavors stem more from our sorrow that she left only six major novels, and we want more. If she had been as prolific as a Georgette Heyer (her admirer and emulator) or even a modern romance writer, perhaps we would not have the pent-up longing to try to enter her world and prolong our pleasure. That she is not remote or distant is witnessed by the range of people of many cultures and age groups who enjoy her writing. The problem is, she didn’t have time to write enough—and thus, I think, we want to fill that gap, if we can. But ultimately, we know that no one else can be Jane Austen.
Do you think that all these adaptations, both written and for the screen, could alter, mislead or even distort the interpretation of Austen’s work?
Susan: I suppose that one could argue that the adaptations could distort the interpretation of Austen’s work, except that time has a way of winnowing out the dross. Some of the imitations, adaptations, and dramatizations clearly excel, while others tend to leave one in a swoon. But who, for example, looks at the 1940’s film of Pride and Prejudice as anything but an odd anomaly?
Kathleen: Definitely. Austen’s works do not promote or directly portray physical violence or explicit sex, for example. What is so wonderful about her novels is that they portray real people with real problems and real triumphs, but in ways that are not sensationalistic, but layered, suggestive, complex, thoughtful, intelligent. We love Austen’s novels so much because they’re so witty, and genuine wit never depends on vulgarity.
Isn’t the romantic aspect of her novels over- emphasized in the film versions or TV series we’ve seen so far? (Not that I mind romance, but those romantic scenes in the movies are so often not at all Austen-style!)
Susan: Ah, Romance!! Every director who creates a film from a work of literature necessarily forecloses a wide range of interpretations to focus on her own. Directors also find it incumbent on them to create films that people will pay to watch. So I’m not surprised when the main characters have more physical contact than I think Austen would have approved of, and I think she would have been benevolent about the stretch (except for that version of Northanger Abbey in which Isabella Thorpe becomes excessively friendly and I do mean excessively with Frederick Tilney, which Austen would certainly not brook). To reach a new generation, the films need to speak their language. The books do so with imagination, for the reader, after all creates the love scenes, but the visual arts can be given a little latitude.
Kathleen: Probably so. She portrays such a rich variety of human relationships and interactions in each novel. However, courtship and marriage were undeniably central to women’s lives in Austen’s age.
What is the peculiarity which makes Jane Austen’s genius unique?
Susan: I think the peculiarity that makes Jane Austen’s genius unique is her command of the English language and her ability to turn it so precisely to her desires. She has so apt a way of turning a phrase, and she so listens to and appreciates the cadence of language as well as its meaning, that the reader is drawn into her fictional world hardly understanding the nature of the siren song that brings him there.
Kathleen: Her clever, whimsical, satirical but forgiving voice in both her novels and her surviving letters. The narrator of each novel is almost as interesting a character as the heroine, with her constant amusing commentary. We feel like we know Jane Austen on a personal level and she is our friend.
Now a few questions about your just released JANE AUSTEN’S GUIDE TO THRIFT: An Independent Woman’s Advice on Living within One’s Means. How did you come to write this guide together?
Susan: We came to write this book together because we work together, of course, and we co-coordinate the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. We had done a presentation together on women’s letters, a conference paper on body image in Austen, and a dramatic adaptation of scenes from Austen’s novels. In addition, we embarked on a number of adventures in the world of garage sales, thrift shops, and antique shows that made this book a natural for a collaborative project. Our areas of practical expertise are very different, so that we were able to supplement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Kathleen: An agent originally suggested the idea of combining the two topics, and it seemed like the perfect match for our interests and experience. We love Austen and have read all her novels many times, and we’re both thrift enthusiasts as well. In fact, we suspect that if Austen were alive today, she might satirize us as ultra-thrifty women in a novel, but we hope we’re nicer than Aunt Norris!
What was the funniest aspect of the experience?
Kathleen: We’ve had a lot of humorous experiences on the thrift circuit. We thrifters are a unique bunch, and anything can happen at an estate sale or second-hand shop. People enjoy handing each other bargains and boasting of their own, offering lessons on the history of an odd object and so on; it’s as if we’ve all walked right out of an Austen novel and are exchanging snappy dialogue in a new but appropriate setting.
Susan: I think that some of the funniest aspects of our experience together were our field trips to various sorts of sales. On one occasion, there was a wonderful painting that I wanted very much, and it was quite clear that the vendor who had it was seriously smitten with Kathleen. Thus, I shoved her in to make the bargain at a much lower rate than I would have been able to achieve, simply by smiling at him. Now that’s thrifty shopping.
How much of your advice come from Jane’s life and how much instead from her work?
Susan: I think we wanted to use the novels and their characters as the model for much of what we had to say, because readers would be more familiar with the famous characters and situations. Austen is so witty at drawing characters that we had no difficulty in transporting them to modern situations and thinking how they would react. That being said, we were also well aware of the life challenges Austen faced as referenced in her letters, which provide intimate details of her own thrifty dealings. We asked ourselves, “What would Jane do?” often in our writing, and we often found, I think, that many of her characters reflect her own values. It was fun thinking of Lucy Steele in business or as an eBay vendor (although I might add here, she’s not a character that often thinks “What would Jane do?” or reflects Austen’s values, except by being the opposite.)
Kathleen: Most of our tips come from the novels themselves, especially the lives and quotable comments of the female characters, but Austen herself lived an economical life while still being a chic, sophisticated lady, so she provided the inspiration for the book.
Did you discover which is Austen’s recipe for happiness while working on her novels?
We think Austen’s recipe for happiness involves living a life of virtue and moderation. We strongly believe she was a woman of principle, and she behaved consistently with her faith, with her values, and with her standards. Such a life is challenging because it requires a level of self-denial, but also satisfying at the most profound level.
How would you advertise your book in less than 50 words?
Kathleen: Jane Austen’s Guide to Thrift tells you everything you need to know to live a life of elegant economy and joyful generosity on any budget.
Susan: Want to live within your means, thumb your nose at the credit card companies, enjoy a satisfying life of elegant but thrifty style, and seek adventure without running up debt or breaking your bank account (You WILL have one!)? Want to enjoy the experience? Get Jane Austen’s Guide to Thrift.
Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones are the authors of Jane Austen’s Guide to Thrift (Berkley Books, 2013)