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In late February and early March, Chamber Opera Chicago offered the local premiere of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical. The music and lyrics are a collaborative effort by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs. Attendees at the Chicago AGM in 2008 will remember the tantalizing preview of this work they have been writing and revising for the past several years.

The Castle of Otranto, First Folio Shakespeare Festival, 2009
Sense and Sensibility, Theatre of Western Springs, 2009
Pride and Prejudice, GreenMan Theatre Troupe, 2009

Despite the ninety-point spread between my Math and English SAT scores, I know I spend more time watching live theatre than any big or little screen. So I gladly took the challenge to see three Austen-related plays in as many weeks. What follow are my impressions. They’re offered with the full knowledge that I have no right to any opinion. As Kenneth Tynan said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.

"Emma Woodhouse was born with the sun shining—to a father who always expected the worst. One day the worst did happen." Definitely a clever opening line, but does it really top Jane Austen's: "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." Not for this viewer, but then, I am one of those Austen purists that has to see a very good reason for tampering with the author’s excellent words, and, even though the narrator reads those opening lines with good effect in the voiceover, the backstory that screenwriter Sandy Welch chooses to give us about Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax (that their mothers died when they were children) seems unnecessary and out of place. One might suppose it’s there for the benefit of viewers who haven’t read the novel, setting up an explanation for the characters’ later behavior, but it distracts from what is, after all, Emma’s story, and takes away some of the mystery.

"I'm not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants. . . I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and the language and the courtesy. . . the stately, elegant rituals and pace of courtship." These are the sentiments of Amanda Price, feelings which open a portal for her into Longbourne and simultaneously allow Elizabeth to escape into Amanda's modern-day London. So begins Amanda's participation in Pride and Prejudice, unwillingly disrupting the plot and showing characters in a surprising new light.

To begin with an obvious question: How could the same 90-minute span allotted to Northanger Abbey accommodate Mansfield Park, a book twice as long and considerably more complex? A partial answer is: By omitting the Grants and Mr. Yates, as well as Sotherton and Portsmouth and everything associated with them. Instead of dwelling on the evils of these omissions let us judge the new film within its chosen boundaries.

Woe to anyone whose recorder missed the first minutes of the film; that person has paid dearly for choosing to watch the Super Bowl instead. In those first minutes we see Jane’s giddy acceptance of Harris Bigg’s hand in marriage and then Jane and Cassandra’s hasty retreat the next morning. In the carriage Jane silently prays, “Tell me I have done the right thing. Tell me I was right to change my mind. Dear God, let me never regret this day.” What follows is a skillful depiction of the answer to this prayer.

The grand finale of the 3-month-long Austen celebration offers much for commentary—from the casting of the sisters, to the “casting” of Barton Cottage, to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. Davies’ longtime reputation as an adaptor of period novels rests on his ability to forge successful connections between Austen’s novel and a modern audience.

During our family screening of the new Masterpiece version of Northanger Abbey, my 10-year-old snuggled up next to me, shivering, as my astonished spouse stared at me in consternation and exclaimed, “Turn it off!” He was referring to the cuts from the story to the lurid gothic fantasies, filmed in a blue-gray palette and with a florid musical background, that lead the viewers through the mind of Catherine Morland. People who have never read Northanger Abbey are always surprised that it is, in part, a sly commentary on contemporary fiction, its readers and detractors.

Fanny Price may be a tousled romper (see Mansfield Park review). Anne Elliot is a spit-curled sprinter who’d win a foot race against any Austen character. Why she positively flies up and down the sidewalk in Bath when she gets the famous Wentworth “You pierce my soul” letter, handed to her by what seems to be a servant.

By far the most successful adaptation in the Masterpiece series: The Complete Jane Austen, the 1995 film of Pride and Prejudice is lively, modern, and visually stunning.

By Jill Pitkeathley William Morrow, 2008, ISBN: 0-0614-4639-4

Baroness Jill Pitkeathley was in the midst of a six-month stay in a cancer ward when she said to herself, “If not now, when?” During her treatment, Austen’s novels were familiar friends, so upon recovery, she set about to give new insights into Jane Austen’s character and offer her own answers to questions each Austen enthusiast eventually asks: “Was she ever in love? If so, with whom? Why did she never marry? Why did she accept a marriage proposal, only to reject it immediately afterward? Who was Eliza’s father? Why was Jane silent, writing nothing, for ten years?” As a trained counselor, Pitkeathley was equally intrigued by Jane Austen’s personality and relationships. Pitkeathley wished to answer: “Was Jane a difficult character? How did she behave within her family? Why did Cassandra destroy some of Jane’s letters?”

By Nancy Moser, Bethany House, 2007, ISBN: 0-7642-0356-8

As JASNA National member Nancy Moser researched Just Jane, she found . . . a friend. She met a fellow fiction author who was “witty, wise, discerning, creative, and loyal” as well as “stubborn, judgmental, insecure, and needy.” A Jane Austen who is “a lot like us.”

Just Jane is fictional biography. Moser worked hard to present Jane accurately, though warning readers she used creative guesswork to flesh out, explain, and add immediacy to the action. Moser, daringly, writes in the first person. In its defense, the first-person present-tense approach confronted me with Jane’s emotions during critical events in her life—being dispossessed of all that was “home” in Steventon; weathering painful courtships, living with guilt and disregard as an unmarried dependent, enduring years of writer’s block and a manuscript languishing in a publisher’s storeroom.

By Mona Scheuermann, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 0-2306-1877-4

Mona Scheuermann, Professor of English at Oakton Community College, has held visiting professorships at the University of Hamburg, the Free University of Berlin and the University of Berne, and she is the author of three other books on Austen’s era: Social Protest in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel; Her Bread to Earn: Women, Money, and Society from Defoe to Austen; and In Praise of Poverty.

Edited by Susannah Carson, Random House, 2009, ISBN: 0-8129-8001-8

My only regret is that I did not receive my copy of this book in time to recommend it for your holiday gift list. Surely this is a book to provide hours of entertainment to any reader of Jane Austen, serious or frivolous, or, like me, a fan and collector of all things Austen. Fortunately, this book has received much press and blog coverage since it was first released in November, and it is not too late to put it on your gift list for upcoming occasions —or to gift yourself! I would certainly return to reread my favorite commentators over a cup of tea or possibly some steaming cappuccino. (Austen fans cross cultures.) I returned with delight to Michael Amis’s article on Pride and Prejudice which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1999. He was the first one I recall pointing out “Austen’s celebration of ‘the amorous effects of brass’: that is, of money, and old money, too.” Americans know how sexy that can be—think of Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby chasing his Daisy and our fascination with the lives of the Kennedy clan. Amis’s essay examines how Austen “makes Mrs. Bennets of us all.”