The 405 Freeway, in July, is not a very romantic place at least not without some Jane Austen to help you visualize an English countryside instead of the fake tree disguising the cell tower. We take what Jane Austen may have penned as an auxiliary route, as the setting for our listening.
From this point on, I warn, we’ll be discussing Jane Austen like how other people discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
MANSFIELD PARK or THE COUNTRY
In a completely coincidental and perfectly poetic instant, I began listening to the BBC Jane Austen Collection on my way to a wedding. SPOILER ALERT: For anyone who might have missed it, all of Jane Austen’s novels involve weddings. The wedding I was heading to departs from the common narrative only by having me – the young lady in question- not as the bride.
Now this wedding, which was not mine, happened up in mountains. Mammoth Mountain to be exact or more appropriately in Austen terms “the country.” Very quickly into my listening, I discovered the importance of the country to any heroine. In all six of the radio plays, there was a setting or reference to the country as the place to be for the characters. All young ladies, it seemed, spent some time in their lives or through their courtship in the country at some sprawling estate that was nowhere near town. Cue the sound of dusty roads, strolling horses and is that a summer breeze?
I was enthralled by the radio plays, as they managed to evoke a real nostalgia of two different centuries past. Firstly, we have the imagery of sitting by the family radio and a crackling fire listening to the latest fancy play (or FDR, it’s always FDR). Then, we have the sound design of a well-placed piano melody transporting us to the 1800s when every accomplished young lady could carry a tune. It was truly extraordinary how quickly a piano makes one think, English country side with skirts covered in mud from a walk around the grounds with a suitor. As a visual storyteller, it was a reminder that stories can become visual in more ways than just an image.
(On a completely different note, there was also quite a bit of mention on Bath as if it was the Las Vegas of the British countryside in the 1800s).
NORTHANGER ABBEY or THE MOST ELIGIBLE GENTLEMAN
So with a wedding and the country perfectly poised and primed for all Jane must have to offer me. Around hour 10, I began to muse over what anyone who’s EVER read or experienced all of Jane Austen’s work must start musing – who is Austen’s most eligible gentleman?
We have Edmund Bertram, Fanny’s perfect suitor in Mansfield Park. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch in the radio play, he’s just the perfect tones of understanding and patience. Then there’s the perfectly reckless Tom Bertram, potentially made more eligible by David Tennant’s reading of him. But it is Henry Crawford in this story, even though he ultimately proves disappointing, that out of all of Austen’s flawed gentlemen wins for the best proposal (in the plays). I listened to his proposal a couple of times, convinced against the author’s better judgement that maybe he was the most eligible suitor.
Austen had plenty of disappointing suitors, and I separated them into two categories: the disappointing but lovable (nay, even redeemable) and the reprehensible. Henry Crawford is joined in his ranks of disappointing by lovable by John Willoughby (Sense & Sensibility), Frank Churchill (Emma)*, and even Mr. William Collins (Pride & Prejudice). The reprehensible are in order from most to least are George Wickham (Pride & Prejudice), William Elliot (Persuasion) and poor John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey).
Then we have the perfectly flawed gents led by none other than Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride & Prejudice), Mr. George Knightley*(Emma), and Mr. Edward Ferrars (Sense & Sensibility). This is where I think Mr. Edmund Bertram would also fall, perfectly flawed.
Lastly, we have the practically perfect gentlemen: Mr. Charles Bingley (Pride & Prejudice), Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey), and Captain Fredrick Wentworth (Persuasion). My answer to the most eligible changes, depending on the day, time and general mood. I don’t have an answer.
*More in PERSUASION section.
Sense & Sensibility or The Most Deplorable Lady
In the world of Jane Austen, though there is always a good and the proper young lady (or ladies), she never shied away from commentary on the not so good or improper lady. At first, I found the trend to be about the older, meddlesome, rather ridiculous lady. Take the awful Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris (Mansfield Park), or the terrible Mrs. Allen (Northanger Abbey), and everyone’s favorite crazy mother Mrs. Bennett (Pride & Prejudice). But then we have the equally deplorable young Miss Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey) and absurd Lydia Bennet (Pride & Prejudice).
In the abridged versions and from the interpretations of the actors in these radio plays, I conclude that Mrs. Allen is the worst of the older ladies and Isabella is the worst of the young. It is in Northanger Abbey, that Austen really explored what I thought were women who were awful and manipulative. But it is really Mrs. Allen that made me go mad, she was just infuriating as a busybody old gossip that seemed set out to maliciously play as the master of faith for the young heroine Catherine Morland.
Pride & Prejudice or The Power of Siblings
In the world of Austen, wedding bells can be exulted or completely derailed by a sibling. Sisters act as confidants, co-conspirators, representatives, or one-woman train-wrecks that may lead to ruin. Brothers, in turn, can be protectors, devices to meeting a perfect match, or partners.
Though Austen tends to focus on the female relationships (more on that next) it is the brother-sister match that caught my interest the most. From Fanny and William Price the loving and doting brother and sister that anchored the heroine of Mansfield Park to Henry and Eleanor Tilney the painfully perfect and composed siblings from Northanger Abbey. It is Bingley’s sisters that are instrumental in keeping Jane Bennett from her match, or it is Georgiana (through reference) that brings about the action that brings Darcy closer to Elizabeth Bennet. It is Mary Crawford that pleads her brother Henry’s case in Northanger Abbey. Every tale has at least one, if not several pairs of siblings adding their own dynamic to the crafted narrative.
Austen’s siblings seem to be an exploration in the parameters of love, as much as the hero and heroine, a reflection of relationships so tight they are forever presented as intertwined. The siblings of Austen seem even more important and instrumental than that of parents to any story, the siblings against the rest of their world.
EMMA or The Gender Role Reversal
It was strangely refreshing and slightly disturbing that I found such a female centric voice in narratives from about 200 years ago. Jane Austen wrote stories about women. Female characters were front and center while the male characters were background.
Austen’s six works are about Fanny, Catherine, Elinor, Marianne, Jane, Elizabeth, Emma, and Anne. All women with a story. Sure, there could be an argument that each of these stories is about the woman’s relationship with a man – remember they all have a wedding. But I can literally only name once in the six radio plays where a conversation happened only between two male characters (Mansfield Park when Tom is dying and Edmund is comforting him). Otherwise, there is always at least one female if not two or three in the conversation. The listener can easily find what the female characters feel, what their motivations might be, how they might behave while it’s the male characters are only truly experience through their female counterparts’ perspective.
Jane Austen wrote every kind of woman, the hero to the villain. She wrote about their lives, their relationships, the ridiculous constraints of their society.
PERSUASION or The Life of Ageless Stories
Before listening to 14 hours of radio plays, I had only ever been exposed to Pride and Prejudice. Because high school, like for many I know, immortalized that Jane Austen tale for me. But somewhere amid the third radio play, Sense and Sensibility, I was overpowered with needing to experience these stories in their film adaptions.
I began my deep dive into Austen films with Emma Thompson’s 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. A film I was pleasantly surprised to note was written by Emma Thompson, females driving female stories. The film was the more fleshed out film version of this Austen classic that gave me a greater love for Edward Ferrars (who doesn’t love a young Hugh Grant?) and gave all the charm to John Willoughby (Greg Wise). It also introduced a third young Miss Margaret Dashwood (she’s not in the radio play) as a delightful scene companion for Edward. From there I moved on, same year but different story, to the ever famous version of Pride and Prejudice. You know the one with Colin Firth, that anyone who didn’t feel like reading the novel might have run to blockbuster to get for their book report? I don’t know how I missed this so many years ago, but it was well worth all 5 hours and 27 minutes. Directly after finishing that, I rewatched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. A film, I oddly remember because of its camera movement – and it still held up.
Here, I started double viewing – a web series that I’ve been told to watch so many times, it’s become a joke, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Which deserves every bit of praise it gets for a modern adaption that was done faithfully and cleverly. This series gave me an understanding to Lydia, I never before encountered and opened up the character of Charlotte in a wonderful way.
And then more films – The Jane Austen Book Club, Clueless, and the 1996 Emma. The Jane Austen Book Club was strange to experience because the characters were all reading the six novels and I had yet to finish all six radio plays. It planted notions about characters I had yet to really met like Emma is an insufferable know it all. Not to mention, it had a delightful cast that includes Hugh Dancy, Emily Blunt, and Jimmy Smits. The 1996 Emma blossomed the character of Mr. Frank Churchill into the disappointing yet lovable because well, Ewan McGregor. Then there was also the 2005 Miniseries of Emma, which is spectacular and gave me a true love for Mr. Knightley (Johny Lee Miller). Each adaption of Austen’s work brings something different, draws my attention to another detail, creates a new and singularly different experience. And isn’t that what we all want? I’ve only broached the surface and I’m sure to be watching Austen adaptions for weeks, even months to come.
The BBC Jane Austen Collection did what I believe any good story should do, it inspired me to seek out more stories.
Book Title: The Jane Austen BBC Radio Drama Collection
Author: Jane Austen
Narrated By: Benedict Cumberbatch , David Tennant ,Julie McKenzie, and more.
Publisher Synopsis: A collection of BBC radio full-cast dramatisations of Jane Austen’s six major novels. Jane Austen is one of the finest writers in the English language, and this volume includes all six of her classic novels.