Why puritan America just loves Jane Austen


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"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.

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