Jane Austen as Gateway Drug (or Must-See BBC)


When Masterpiece Theatre aired their complete series of Jane Austen not only was I reacquainted with an artist who I wholly took for granted in my undergraduate years, but the re-adaptations of such delightful works as Mansfield Park and Persuasion got me hooked, once again, on the period piece dramas I escaped  to in the awkward and unnecessary years of high school. Since MT’s airing, I’ve been chasing the likes of Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, and the Brontes since and am thoroughly enjoying almost every page of these seemingly endless serial works.

I wholeheartedly advocate diving into these wonderful recent adaptations, all of which are deliciously satisfying. I wasn’t a fan of Billie Piper until I saw her in Mansfield Park where she proved she had some acting chops as precocious and shy Fanny Price, who, despite her lowly background, doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind and triumphs over deceit and denial.

Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penny-Jones are wonderfully pensive and draw out a nuanced performance in their awkward and painful dance in Austen’s more serious Persuasion.

I was utterly enthralled and enchanted with Northanger Abbey, which should make a short and delightful read just in time for Halloween. I’m also enamored of JJ Field, who is irresistible in this romp as well as in Phillip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, a Masterpiece Mystery Classic.

I did not care for the new Sense and Sensibility nor the Emma with Kate Beckinsale, but if you’d allow me to make a plug for my three absolute favorite BBC period productions, which I intend to own someday because they’re just so damn good. Elizabeth Gaskell makes Jane Austen’s drawing room dramas seem tawdry frivolously frilly affairs in her powerhouse critique of Industrialization and Labour in North and South.


Gemma Arerton’s performance in Hardy’s Tess of D’Ubervilles will win you over body and soul. And Hardy blazes a scathing eye to Victorian society and the demented rigors of religion that leaves everyone scarred and profoundly stunned.

Keeley Hawes is also astoundingly amazing as downtrodden but defiant heroine, Lizzie Hexam (one of the rare complex female Dickensian creations to grace his volumes of otherwise two-dimensional women), but you really need to read Our Mutual Friend before being able to enjoy the adaptation. Chuck D is a master writer and no matter where one is in with the craft, we can always learn from him.

With that said, no writer has compared and no piece can withstand the astute clarity and transcendent pathos of Charlotte Bronte. I used to love her sister above all else until I saw Jane Eyre, and then read Jane Eyre twice in a row. Charlotte is a Goddess of Art.

I watched Lost in Austen a couple of months ago and though I loved Jemima Rooper as a lesbian ghost in the macabre BBC occult hit Hex, I found the modern revamped Austen take too silly and therefore unnecessary.

Before watching Becoming Jane I had serious doubts about Anne Hathaway as Austen but was pleasantly surprised by the film and Hathaway’s performance though Miss Austen Regrets is a finer tribute to the writer, and the film attempts to present a truthful portrait of the arduous and lonely journey of a mature writer.

This journey is eased and inspired by all the great works listed above, which are worth visiting and revisiting until the journey’s end, not to mention they’re just great fun and a perfect antidote to rainy weather blues.

The Ubermensch Pair

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Earlier this year, PBS aired Masterpiece Theatre’s latest adaptation of Emily Bronte’s hauntingly favorite story, Wuthering Heights. After the terribly dry and awkward rendition with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, I had my reservations about a new resurrection. WH is such an oddly abstract and metaphysical tale. In highschool, I didn’t quite fathom its complexity but just took it more as atmospheric.

Fifteen years later, I understand a little bit more of what Bronte was trying to do with her immortal characters. The characters are psychologically and psychically complex–and in their psychic connection they remind me of Clarissa Dalloway’s transcendental connection to Septimus Smith. Cathy and Heathcliff are two souls commingling on another plane. Part of their connection is spiritually inherent and tied to Nature and Place–and the other part is tied to their willful defiance of a society that has condemned and belittled them, most cruelly, for their lowly status, Heathcliff especially, of course.

The pair are essentially the ubermensch couple, a la Nietzsche’s Superman and they defy the codes of the day, the strict mores of their socio-economic status and turn both Egdon Heath and Wuthering Heights inside out into their own perverse reality of revenge. Together, as willful agents, they turn the shackles their family set on them against those who denied them  happiness, and end up dragging everyone else into the misery they were cornered into. Cathy becomes a businesswoman, in her own way, and attempts to raise her and Heathcliff from the confines of their life through the only means she had available, marriage to Edgar Linton. Marriage as business transaction in the most perverse sense, indeed.

Both Cathy and Heathcliff try to transcend their material roles, physically and economically, though I’d argue their spirits, metaphysically, are already soaring among heights that many of us can’t reach or fathom because we’re not the wild, free, willfully awakened spirits they are. Their story is Promethean. They are both Icarus vying for a greater glory– to be free and united as they were on the wild moors. And in their Elysian pursuit, in the face of reality and society–they are burned–but they’ll take the rest of us with them if they must go down. WH is Romanticism at its headiest and most ideal.

I could go on about Nelly, and the frame, meta-narrative told by the servant who becomes author and therefore authority to the tale. The MT production was not so much a disappointment since I armed myself with low expecations. Heathcliff, played by Tom Hardy, who was wonderful in MT’s 2008, Oliver Twist, seemed to have eaten one too many bangers and mash and pasties. And, as for Charlotte Riley’s Cathy, ever since I read Olivier’s biography, where he adamantly states that the only actor who could match Catherine’s fire was Vivien Leigh, I’ve been biased and second his sentiments. Though I have to give this adapation credit since all revelations listed above were borne from the 2009/8 Masterpiece Theatere production. Catherine & Heathcliff live again, and scour the earth like a doomed and fiery comet, leaving us as breathless and restless as they are.