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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood in possession of good fortune must be in want of a good love story. Enter Jane Austen. Three films based on her novels were released in the last two years and more are on the way. “Sense and Sensibility,” received seven Academy Award nominations yesterday.
Now, to talk about Jane Austen and affairs of the heart, we are joined by Carol Shields, author of the Stone Diaries, which won a Pulitzer Prize last year, Cynthia Heimel, who often chronicles the battle of the sexes in her books, the latest of which is titled If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?, and by our essayist, Roger Rosenblatt.
Thank you all for being with us. Carol Shields, how do you explain the infatuation with Jane Austen?
CAROL SHIELDS, Novelist: (San Francisco) Oh, I think we’ve been coming at this for quite a while. The last few years with the E.M. Forrester films, other films from the past, I see it as a kind of nostalgia. I think people and writers, in particular, are looking back over this last 200 years, especially now that we’re about to go into a new millennium, looking back with nostalgia, and also with a kind of trepidation to see where these years have delivered us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Roger Rosenblatt, what would you add to that? How do you explain the infatuation?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: (New York) Well, she was born in the 18th century and wrote in the 19th century, and works out a perfect balance of the, the stability or the rationality of the 18th century and the passion of the 19th, but the best thing really about Jane Austen, and before one searches for the themes that apply to our modern times, is that she was very good. She was a great writer.
She was a wonderful satirist. She had a shrewd mind, a kind heart. She was all that you’d want in a writer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia Heimel, do you think it has something to do, though, with our own society, that Jane Austen is so popular?
CYNTHIA HEIMEL, Author: (New York) I think I do. I think everybody’s tired of Sylvester Stallone movies. I think everybody’s tired of these desperately kinky sex movies, and women go to the movies they’ve just noticed, you know, the lines outside of waiting to exhale, and the Jane Austen movies are primarily women-driven.
You know, the guys go, okay, it’s a chick movie, I’ll go, and the pendulum has sort of swung away from, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger killing everybody in front of him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Don’t you think also, Ms. Heimel, that it has–it is about love, and there’s a fascination with love and especially love the way she writes about it?
MS. HEIMEL: Absolutely. And I sort of call these movies, and I shudder to think what Hollywood is going to do with Jane Austen. I like what England does with her, but I think these movies are kind of girl pornography. We like all the build up and the tension and the outfits. We don’t really want to see anything graphic, and I think I speak for all my sisters when I say this.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger, what do you think about that? What about the difficulty of, of getting love and getting, getting your mate, is–that’s an important part of it too, isn’t it?
MR. ROSENBLATT: Yeah. I’m not sure I speak for all my sisters when I say this, but the beauty of, of her, I guess it’s her sensibility, Jane Austen’s sensibility, is that she, she believes in passion.
She makes fun of it a lot, but she believes in the necessity of passion, but she likes the long run, so in the long run, these people get married at the end of her novel not because that passion has prevailed but that a kind of wisdom has prevailed that says we’re going to get along, we’re not only going to get along for one hot night in bed, we’re going to get along forever, and the reader believes that, and that balance, I guess it comes back to reason and passion again, the long run for love, is something very rare in fiction, very rare in movies. I can’t imagine anybody not wanting, not wanting to see it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Carol Shields, she really wasn’t a romantic, was she?
MS. SHIELDS: I think she was a romantic, a suppressed romantic, and I think that one reason we are enjoying this Jane Austen revival so much is that we are charmed by the, the notion of deferred romance, of delayed erotic pleasure, and when we see that hand on the wrist, or that meaningful glance, we know. We can read the shorthand. We are in the presence of a grand passion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you don’t think that the character played by Emma Thompson in “Sense and Sensibility,” Elinor, is a counterpart or a counterpoint to Mary Ann, who is the romantic character? It seems to me she’s very romantic but not really a romantic.
MS. SHIELDS: I think Jane Austen set them up to be examples, one, a spontaneity on one side, and good sense on the other. In fact, I don’t think they are true opposites. I think they’re both pretty self repressed, but waiting for the grand chance, always waiting.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think, Carol Shields, that the civility and kindness that are in her novels are also making her very popular today? It seems that way?
MS. SHIELDS: Yes, I do. I do. I think they show us a more predictable world that, one we might like to live in. I think the characters in Jane Austen’s novels know pretty well what they’re going to get. If they are civil, they’re going to be respected. If they are amiable, they might be invited for supper, they might be introduced to the daughters of the family. They are rewarded for good behavior, and I think there’s something about this world of goodness and reward that we respond to.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia Heimel, do you have anything to add to that?
MS. HEIMEL: Well, the world really isn’t safe now, and we really would prefer to be safe. I mean, what, rain forests, ozone layers, pollution, animal extinctions, it’s terrifying out there, and you see this lovely little Barusch, drive clip-clop horses, and everybody’s carrying their little reticules and everything works out well at the end. And you just want to go back.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about AIDS too?
MS. HEIMEL: Forget that. I sort of didn’t want to bring it up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger.
MR. ROSENBLATT: She never dealt with the big subject. She didn’t write about religion. She didn’t write about politics. The Napoleonic wars were going on when she was writing.
You don’t find them mentioned in the books. She wrote what she said like a little square of ivory as if to minimize really the world and the, and the sensibility that she addressed, but, in fact, her little world was as big as any, and part of its attraction now is a respite from all those other louder, wilder concerns, and also a real awareness of the importance of people. She focused in on, on human beings and how we think, and that will never go away.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think her women are–have such–so few options and yet they are quite centered and seem to be in control of some of their own lives.
MR. ROSENBLATT: Here women are remarkable. Her men are less remarkable. The men are kind of feeble. They are knightly as one of the characters is named. They’re patient when they’re good.
Sometimes they’re impatient when they’re bad, and they serve as a kind of, I suppose, a sort of stalwart trees of nobility when their time comes, but the women are stunning. They have everything, i.e., the true heroines have everything. They’ve got great minds, great souls, and here they function under her wonderful ironic eye.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Carol Shields, do you have anything to add to that?
MS. SHIELDS: I agree with Roger. These are real heroines, and they’re–they have no political power, no economic power, but they control their own lives, and in a very real way they conduct and control their courtships.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Cynthia Heimel, do you see changes? This is Valentine’s Day, after all, and in the way people are approaching love and dating and marriage today, say compared to 10 years ago?
MS. HEIMEL: No. People still hate Valentine’s Day.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You don’t like Valentine’s Day very much, do you?
MS. HEIMEL: Valentine’s Day was created just to make single women feel dreadful. That’s the only reason. I mean, if you’re involved with someone, you don’t really care about Valentine’s Day, but when you’re not, you just sit around going, oh, dear. But anyway, love in the ’90s is more traditional, yes.
People are getting married when they’re twenty-six and twenty-seven again. I think in the ’80s it was more like thirty-two, thirty-three, you know, the famous greedy decade. Now everybody is kind of reaching out to touch someone. It’s very nice, very pleasant.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much. Happy Valentine’s Day.
MS. SHIELDS: Happy Valentine’s Day.