~”Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” ~
And so begins one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, Emma. I am an “Austinite,” or more specifically, I have an obsession with the Victorian period and novels by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte in particular. The language of their novels is so elegant and poetic. While I love their innately romantic essence, I love too everything about that period: the clothing, the gorgeous homes and gardens, and the very essence of the characters. Whenever I read one of Austen’s books, I am transported back with vivid detail to a period long ago, but one in which I can still see similarities in the way the characters feel and the obstacles they sometimes face.
What has been fascinating to me is comparing the pictures of life that Austen and Bronte created in their novels with factual accounts of what real life was like during that period. In a graduate course I took on Victorian literature, we read various novels of the period including one of my favorites by Bronte, Jane Eyre. In addition, we looked at writings by Henry Mayhew, John Stuart Mill and Frederich Engel about London’s poor and the labor laws. It amazed me that behind all the glamour of life in the Victorian period, there was this immense poverty that many people of that time lived in. The industrial revolution brought many opportunities, but it also brought pollution, noise, and chaos to an otherwise quiet life, as well as, rigourous work hours of often more than twelve hours per day. While certain novels of the period touched on this, like Charles Dicken’s Bleak House (yes I read all 800-pages word for word), many of the most popular works like those of Austen and Bronte mention it only briefly if at all. It is easy to read those novels and create this picture of beauty if you don’t know what lies behind it.
That said, I still adore the romance novels of this period. I also love watching the film adaptations. I have one rule though: in general, I always try to read the book first. Last winter, PBS’s Masterpiece Classic aired a new series on Austen’s Emma. Having never read the book, I checked out the library’s copy and read the book whatever chance I had so I could keep up with the show every Sunday night. They did a wonderful job with the series and I found that it related quite well to the text. The PBS series does a nice job filming on location; the scenary is breathtaking, and the costumes and language true to the period. My best friend and I enjoyed the handsome Mr. Knightly and the charming Mr. Churchill in this series. For more on the filming and locations check out PBS’s website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/locations/index.html
I now live close to town in Litchfield, and many times on my walks I feel as if I am in an Austen book, walking past all the majestic, historic homes and tree lined sidewalks. It is nice to imagine…and that is what a good book does: it draws you into another world, another place and allows you to temporarily become a part of it, so much so that you may feel a part of it even when you aren’t reading it.
Below are some of my favorite classics, both book and film, from OWL’s collection, as well as some new gems that I’ve discovered:
Jane Austen’s collection of works includes Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. I have read Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and am currently working through Persuasion and fully enjoying it. Afterwards, I will be viewing the BBC production from 2008, staring the handsome Rupert Penry Jones. There is also the motion picture version which OWL owns and I am told is very good.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has a little bit of everything: romance, mystery, death and the classic gothic imagary that became so popular during the Victorian period. I read this in both my undergraduate and graduate studies, and found something new each time I read it.
Contemporary author Elizabeth Aston has written some fine continuations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I have read Mr. Darcy’s Daughters and the Darcy Connection. Aston does a good job writing with similar language and style that Austen used, and it’s fun to read the sequels and extensions to the lives of the characters we fell in love with in the original Pride and Prejudice. The only thing that strays a bit from the traditional style is that the romantic sections are a bit more “racey” than they would have been in Austen’s books. But, not to worry as there is nothing graphic and I would rate it PG at most!
BBC’s 2009 film production of Emma, staring Romola Garai as the match-making Emma is a classic. It is all I’ve said above, and in addition I might add that the musical score for this, and most of the BBC productions, is fabulous.
I discovered North and South last winter at OWL. If you want to get an idea of the hardships faced by the working class poor, this series does a nice job while incorporating a little romance too!
Sense and Sensibility is one of my all-time favorite movies. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet play the Dashwood sisters, who after their father dies, are left nothing and forced to move from them grand home to a small cottage. Betrayal, love and new-found hope intertwine nicely in this film adaptation.
LarkRise to Candleford is a fun series based on Flora Thompson’s book about a young girl in 19th century Oxfordshire who moves from living with her family in the country village to living in town on her own and working in the post office. It has a nice balance of “tear-jerking” drama and light-hearted comedy especially with the robust character Lizzie who is always trying to find new, creative ways to bring money to her family.
Pride and Prejudice staring Keira Knightly is an updated version of the original one with Colin Firth. I am told the one with Firth is the best, but I have yet to see it. However, this version is very well done and you will be sure to fall in love with the dashing Mr. Darcy.
Another way to peak inside life during the Victorian Era is to check out At Home by Bill Bryson. This is a fascinating and unique book that takes the reader through each part of the house over time from as early as the 1500’s through the Victorian period. Along the way, he explains the history behind how we’ve come to have the homes we do now and the items that inhabitat them. For example, Bryson explores why, out of all the many spices and flavorings we keep in the kitchen cabinet why we have only salt and pepper on our tables. He takes on the whole spectrum of household activities from the “glutaneous” eating habits in Victorian London to the effort to prepare a bath. Servants had to heat the water then carry it up various flights of stairs repeatedly. No wonder it wasn’t customary to bath everyday. All those beautiful and handsome creatures that grace the screen in my favorite classics probably wouldn’t have looked so clean and fresh in reality!
Now, I think its time for some afternoon tea and hot buttered crumpets while gazing out at the flowing gardens :-)
Sarai is the Publicity Coordinator/Library Assistant who loves tea at any time of day, watching birds out of her window, taking a stroll, and is looking forward to watching Rupert Penry Jones in Persuasion.