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

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape