Why puritan America just loves Jane Austen

ANOTHER VIEW

Share
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

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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower