Why puritan America just loves Jane Austen


Related Topics
"One half of the world," wrote Jane Austen, "cannot understand the pleasures of the other." This aphorism is confounded by the ecstatic reception given in the United States to Pride and Prejudice and, now, Sense and Sensibility. The first was seen by more than 11 million people when shown on American television; the film of the second, starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, has won awards for Best Screenplay and Best Dramatic Picture at the Golden Globe Awards, considered an accurate predictor of the Oscars, and is expected to do pounds 50m worth of business.

Part of this can be explained by the casting: neither Jennifer Ehle nor Thompson will make female viewers jealous, while the cuddly Grant and the smouldering Colin Firth are dishy without being vulgar. But while this wins viewers on both sides of the pond, other factors contribute to Austen's American success.

Both films feed the fond American notion of English culture and refinement, an idea that thrives on lack of familiarity. Americans would be astounded to be told that the Bennets and the Dashwoods, despite their live-in servants and fancy clothes, are merely upper middle-class or that the real aristocracy, occupied with huntin' and whorin', can be pigs at table and something worse in bed. Austen's dialogue is sharp, simple and free of allusions to such arcana as the poetry of Byron or the Battle of Waterloo. To Americans, who think every Brit has a butler or is one, she makes the upper class not only enviable, but also recognisably human.

The low level of extra-marital romping in Austen also pleases punters in America, where Showgirls and similarly raunchy ventures have bombed. America is so much bigger and richer than Britain, and so much more openly dedicated to experiencing pleasure and marketing it, that one tends to forget it is still a puritanical country. Religious revivals, including the virgin-and-proud-of-it movement, have huge followings; rates of teenage pregnancy and illegitimate births are lower; pornography can carry severe legal penalties; political correctness restricts or prohibits much sex- related speech and conduct; television does not show nudity. Austen's suitability to young persons recommends her not only to the would-be cultured, but also to Americans who can't find Britain on the map. Her extended, graceful narratives are a refreshing change for audiences who are familiar only with a jumbled, episodic format as an excuse for delayed sexual consummation and marriage - as in When Harry Met Sally, for example, or Hugh Grant's own Four Weddings And A Few Bonks.

Classy and clean, the Austen adaptations are a good advertisement for England and will doubtless lift admissions to Chawton, as Brideshead Revisited did to Castle Howard. If the tourists arrive a bit glassy-eyed, however, we will know that they ran into modern Britain, with its tattoos, shaven heads, and nostril, nipple and navel rings, on the way.

The writer is a London-based American literary and theatre critic.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special  

General election 2015: Not voting makes you responsible for the worst that follows

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk