The Jane Austen Book Club
Calgary International Film Festival 2007
Some time ago, I was using the phrase “intellectual chick lit” to describe the book Literacy and Longing in L.A. to a friend and was instantly retorted with: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I had no reply. Maybe to respond to the bad rap “chick lit” and “chick flicks” have been getting, a few writers have infused literary ingredients in their concoction in their attempt to create more intelligent work. The Jane Austen Book Club falls into this short list. The book written by Karen Joy Fowler (2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist) was turned into sceenplay by Robin Swicord (Screenplay, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) who made her directorial debut in the movie. I had the chance to view it on the first day of the 2007 Calgary International Film Festival.
The book club is established with the original intent of consoling Sylvia, who is recently divorced from her husband Daniel. It is a plan conceived by her good friend Jocelyn, a never-been-married dog breeder. Following the theme of Austen’s Emma, Jocelyn has brought along the only male, Grigg, to the club, intended for her friend Sylvia. What follows is the expected outcomes, Grigg falls for Jocelyn instead of Sylvia, who later reconciles with her estranged husband, while the other members of the group also are either hooked up with new found love or have their relationships mended. Very neat, very happy, very clean ending. Is this what Jane would have written if she were around today?
TJABC reminds me of the British movie Love Actually, which was released during the Christmas season in 2003. Dealing with the love affairs of eight different couples in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season has got to be a swift and jolly feat. The movie remains a montage of famous British faces delivering superficial Christmas cheers under the banner of love. TJABC has just slightly fewer characters, with six members in the group responsible for leading discussion on one of the six Austen novels. Despite the juxtaposition and parallels of Austenian motifs and plots, I feel that both the movie and the book circumvent the periphery of contemporary life and relationships without offering much depth and insights as Austen’s own work. But of course, who is comparing Fowler with Austen? Having said that, I must say I’ve enjoyed the acting of some of the characters, especially Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), and Hugh Dancy (who would have thought he’s a Brit?)
Coming back to my original question: What would Jane Austen write in this 21st century? Would she fall for “chick lit” that can be turned into romantic comedies, for good cheers or box office successes? Would Jane Austen be a mere romance writer, or “chick flicks” producer? Carol Shield noted that Austen’s heroines “exercise real power”, given their disadvantaged social positions. Martin Amis stated “her fiction effortlessly renews itself in every generation.” Virginia Woolf said about Austen’s writing: “That was how Shakespeare wrote.” Harold Bloom commented on the somberness of her work. Thornton Wilder claimed that Austen’s “art is so consummate that the secret is hidden.” Fay Weldon summed it up well: “I also think … that the reason no one married her was … It was just all too much. Something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth: something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.” Thanks to Fowler for including such commentaries at the back of her book.
Austen is a sharp and incisive social commentator of her time, a progressive thinker holding a sure sense of morality, and a brilliant observer of human nature and relationships. Her wisdom is well crafted in the disguise of humor and satire, her vision covered under seemingly simple, idealistic fervor. Her critique of the manner and injustice of society, if transferred into modern day context, might not appeal as “chick” or as “romantic” as many of us would want to see, or can accept.
What would Jane write? Definitely not “chick lit”.
~~1/2 Ripples for both book and movie