I once confessed to an audience gathered for a pre-show talk about Pride and Prejudice that I felt a bit salty to see so many of them in attendance. A few months earlier, I explained, I’d given an absolutely fascinating lecture on Mary Shelley to maybe five people, one of whom was my Aunt Carmen. The crowd for Jane Austen—and it was a crowd—laughed. A mix of students, folks from the surrounding towns, and my colleagues were there to see a stage adaptation of what is arguably the author’s most popular novel. It was my job to introduce the performance, and I was terrified. It’s no small thing to talk about Austen in public. There’s always a cluster of people who have been reading her since before they could walk, and they not only have strong opinions but also know her and her writing like my mother knew the Bible.
Really the only reason I was giving that talk is because almost 15 years ago, when I was a new assistant professor of English, my students clamored for Austen and I was the one people thought should teach her. It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation: I specialize in the history of the novel and am particularly focused on late 18th- and early 19th-century literature. I’d written about Austen in my dissertation. I was steeped in the critical conversations and interpretations her work has inspired over the centuries, from Walter Scott through the Victorians through waves of feminist literary criticism through Edward Said’s reading of Mansfield Park. But the passion that people expect me to have about her and her novels isn’t there. What’s more, I’ve felt some perverse need to perform my ambivalence over the years.
It hasn’t always gone well. Once, in a guest lecture in a colleague’s class, I announced with a smirk and a dramatic eye roll that I don’t actually like Austen. Afterward, a stricken-looking student came up to me to ask if it was true. “But I love your Austen class!” she told me. I was so shocked by her distress that I said I hadn’t really meant it. Another time, I said that it wasn’t Austen who bothered me so much as her fans, kind of like how I’m terribly fond of the Lord but don’t enjoy His more dogmatic and judgmental followers. I don’t know that either of these statements I made to distance myself from Austen were entirely sincere; much like the author herself, I’m full of contradictions.
The truth is, I’ve always loved Austen’s prose and went through a phase in college where I read Pride and Prejudice every Christmas. But my feelings toward her evolved over the years, starting in grad school, when a combination of literary theory and learning that Mary Shelley had written these rather spectacular other novels convinced me that I was wasting my time with Jane. Austen was for girls, and I was a woman. I had my Butler (Judith not Marilyn), my Donna Haraway and her “Cyborg Manifesto,” and my Foucault (is the ballroom a panopticon?) to read, thank you very much. Shelley led me to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Descartes, and to a novel set in 14th-century Italy with a character who believes her mother was God’s sister. Nothing in Austen could compete with that.
That’s the case I’d tried to make as a doctoral candidate when I told my dissertation committee that I was over Austen and wouldn’t be writing about her. They insisted there was simply no way to write a dissertation on the novel without talking about Jane so I gave in. Only I didn’t discuss Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or Emma, but Sense and Sensibility—and I mostly ignored the women. By then, I had come to resent the expectation of excitement over the minutiae of Austen’s life, as well as the sentimentalized version of 19th-century England that people tend to see in her.
I’ve long been skeptical about the politics that shape which texts are deemed canonical—works like Emma—and which are pushed to the margins. I remember in college reading the critic F.R Leavis’s announcement in The Great Tradition that “the great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad” and wanting to know what, exactly, made them so great. Even back then, when I had more youthful angst than critical acumen, my gut told me the 19th-century authors that scholars canonize are those like Austen, whose fiction played with, but ultimately conformed to, the social conventions of their time.
Still I was surprised by what I found, what I continue to find, in literature from that period, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of people of color. I was late in my doctoral studies before I even stumbled upon my first black character in 19th-century British literature. And lest anyone think I’m casting 21st-century concerns back onto Jane and her peers, consider reading the anonymously written novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale, published in 1808. Unlike Austen, many of her contemporaries wrote stories about interracial marriage and biracial women (that were not tucked away in Charlotte Brontë’s attic). They also used their fiction and poems to contribute to the debates about abolition, in concert with women who circulated petitions, raised funds for the cause, and boycotted sugar from the West Indies.
As my research interests have changed, and as I’ve realized the scope of 19th-century texts that took up the question of transatlantic slavery and the movements to abolish it, I haven’t read Austen the same way. I can appreciate her skill but feel an urgent need to teach and write about these other stories. With Austen as, often, the primary literary lens into her time period, it can be all too easy to forget how deeply invested English culture was not only in curtailing women’s choices, but also in enslaving millions of people. No matter how sparkling the wit of Austen and her characters, no matter the pleasure of the familiar texts, I want to spend my time and energy elsewhere, in another historical Britain, with authors like Maria Edgeworth, Hannah More, and Amelia Opie who grappled directly with the more pressing social issues of their time—not because I agree with or love the stories they tell, but because those stories show the fuller range of British culture in the 1800s.
Despite all this, my students and I have the most rewarding classes with Austen’s novels. I know that’s a politic thing to say, especially as we mark the bicentennial of her death, but it’s also true. I love teaching Romantic-era poetry (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats). And I’ve been thrilled to see my former students take what they’ve learned in my “The Novel to 1900” class on to graduate school and their own work as teachers.
But the first lecture of mine that a class applauded for was about Austen (Mansfield Park). One of my favorite speeches to teach is Willoughby explaining to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility that he “had always been expensive.” Austen lets me talk about the fragility of 19th-century masculinity that she makes sympathetic in a world of Knightleys and Darcys. My students defend Marianne Dashwood when I say I want to shake some sense into her and are exasperated when I get some minor detail wrong (proving to me how carefully they’ve read). Some of the best essays my students write are about Austen’s novels.
I’ve tempered how I show off my ambivalence for the author, but my students know it’s there, which accomplishes two things at once: Austen is such a massive figure in literature that I think my coolness toward her novels invites my students to read her thoughtfully without worrying that they have to come up with the “right” interpretation. And my indifference to an author who is so widely admired leads to classes where we can read and wrestle with Austen’s work in myriad, fascinating ways, without necessarily agreeing with one another.
I could stop here and let you think I only care about Austen in class, but that wouldn’t be totally honest. For all my frustration with the way people often romanticize the world she writes about, Austen has been with me since I was a teenager. The first night in my very first apartment, I chose to read Northanger Abbey. The one movie script I’ve written is based on Emma (my co-author and I made errybody black). My most weathered, heavily annotated edition of a novel is Sense and Sensibility. On one of my visits to England, I walked the streets of Bath, and I couldn’t help but fall under her thrall. There’s still room in my research for Mansfield Park, a novel that I think feels so somber because Austen briefly acknowledges her country’s abolition debates. I take Austen quizzes (I am not Emma, but Anne Elliot) and enjoy every piece of Austen merchandise my students, friends, and family buy me (figurines, puzzles, coffee mugs, memorabilia books, a coloring book, and, most recently, a cozy).
I’m currently writing a long essay about Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Felicia Hemans, and am working on a book about Romanticism and abolition, so my bookshelves don’t have much space for Austen. But I’m also writing this essay in my home office where, on a filing cabinet that doubles as an end table, there sits a candle. I light that candle on dreary days, and it has a simple inscription on it: “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort”—Jane Austen. I suspect that, regardless of where my work takes me, no matter how much more intriguing I find her contemporaries, Austen will always be a kind of home for me, whether I’m in the classroom or in the archives.
When we asked our readers to tell us how they first encountered Austen, we got responses from all over the world—Greece, Australia, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa. One reader, Sümeyye Ceren Özkan, described reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time in a Turkish translation; several others, including Silvia from Italy, said that Austen’s novels were among the first books they read in English. But a notable pattern emerged among some Indian and Pakistani readers who said Austen’s work illuminated social strictures in their own communities. Here’s Amrit, writing from New York City:
Throughout my life I was encouraged by female relatives and the local Indian community to act, dress, and look pretty and put enormous attention into my outward appearance and reputation, as this would guarantee me successful male suitors. The same goes for my fellow Indian female friends, whose aim it was to marry and have children before 30. To them, marrying and keeping up with appearances was important.
It wasn’t until I saw the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie version with Keira Knightley that I felt inspired to begin re-reading the book at a mature age in my life (late twenties). I related to Lizzy Bennet’s character and found it baffling how many things haven’t changed in Indian society and societal norms for ladies. Lizzy comes to my mind each time I attend a social gathering and control myself from making a witty remark.
But I know that I am not alone in these experiences. I was a loner when my thoughts and actions weren’t in agreement with my female friends or society, but I felt a sense of belonging while reading Jane Austen. In a sense, her writing gave me a shield of confidence to tackle the world as an independent female and to not let anything get in the way of my individuality.
Similarly, Soniah Kamal, a Pakistani writer who now lives in Georgia, got hooked on Austenian sarcasm at 14, when she received Pride and Prejudice as a gift from her aunt:
I was a sarcastic teenager myself, much to my mother’s shame—who will marry you?—and I fell in love with Austen’s sauciness and irony. Being a girl from Pakistan, I knew marriage was my sole reason for having been born as far as society was concerned, and it wasn’t long before Jane Austen had turned into my clever Jane Khala, an honorary Pakistani Aunty, the one who had chosen to remain single against the odds. And Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Elizabeth and Charlotte, everyone, went from being characters in a beloved novel to everyday Pakistanis all around me. (I affectionately call my mother Mrs. Bennet; she used to be most un-amused but then I got married and had children and everything suddenly became very funny.)
When it came time for me to choose a spouse, I turned to Austen.
A decade ago, working my first journalism job while also pretending I surfed for a living, I rented a cheap loft in a three-story Victorian across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The home is still there as it was. Seahorses are still engraved in the blue window shutters, and the same landlord, Carol Schuldt, can still be found feeding her chickens in the backyard. If she’s not out surfing.
Schuldt—who I also write about in my new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water—is something of San Francisco's patron surf saint, her home a pelagic shrine where local surfers have long left firewood offerings. At 83, after a lifetime of wave riding, helping beach bums find cheap rent, and sometimes helping them get off drugs, too, Schuldt still rides her rusted beach cruiser to the dunes and bodysurfs these frigid waves without a wetsuit. “It’s where I can still connect to the Universal Mind,” she told me while we hiked the ice-planted dunes a few years ago, “to God, Jaimal—you know.”
Schuldt is one-of-a-kind. But surf culture is full of people who have made their daily plunge a spiritual practice. Though Calvinist missionaries outlawed surfing when they first came to Hawai’i in the 1820s—they viewed it as frivolous and wanton—the last 50 years have seen single-fin riding rabbis, short boarding priests, and bodysurfing Buddhist monks. Surf-related yoga and meditation retreats are common, too, led by the likes of the Pipeline master Gerry Lopez. Bethany Hamilton, the professional who lost an arm to a tiger shark when she was 13, looks to her faith in God to compete on the same level as pros with two arms (which she does mind-bendingly well). The big-wave champ Greg Long sits in lotus to prepare for confronting apartment building-sized walls of ocean.
For Schuldt, and many others like her, surfing doesn’t need a specific religious structure to give it power. Nature is God, she says, the sea holy water, and surfing a meditation—a comparison that would have likely resonated with the poet Philip Larkin, who wrote, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water.” While pop culture and the subculture of surfing have both contributed to the mystical reputation of wave-riding, psychology and neuroscience may play an even bigger role, with researchers finding that water is a key ingredient—if not the key ingredient—in experiences people often call holy.
* * *
One can make a good argument that surfers, or at least water lovers, have access to divine real estate. After all, Genesis describes how, “In the beginning … the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”—not a volcano, not a canyon, not a tree. Muslims perform wudu, ritual ablutions, before praying. Buddhists offer bowls of water as a symbol of clear enlightenment. Baptism is a major component of many religions; converting to Judaism requires full immersion in a mikvah, a bath that must be connected to natural water. Surfing—immersion into the liveliest of waters—has spiritual roots that started well before hippie surfers were passing the peace pipe. Hawaiian chiefs demonstrated their clout by braving big waves. When the surf raged too big for humans, it was called ‘Awili, meaning the gods were surfing.
But whether walking on it, surfing it, or bathing with it, water has been at the center of transformative rituals throughout history. “Across all spiritual traditions, cultures, and times, you find the use of water to achieve states of awe, grace, and love,” said Wallace J. Nichols, a biologist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Blue Mind, which explores how humans can benefit from being close to water. “We scientists avoid those words like the plague. But if you’re on the water a lot, those end up being the words you need to describe your experiences.”
Scientists are still learning why people say they feel increased amounts of unity, reverence, and happiness in the water, Nichols told me. But if you look at the scientific recipe for flow states—the psychological term for when people are fully and pleasantly absorbed in what they’re doing—being in water checks a lot of the boxes. First, you’re removing a lot of distractions: buzzing cell phones, traffic, written language, and even the need for language, period. Second, you get many of the perks of solitude without the side effects of pain and loneliness.
Then, there’s what psychologists call the “soft focus” that water provides—meaning that watching water is stimulating, even entertaining, to the brain, but in a relaxing, rejuvenating way. Look at the brain of a surfer or swimmer in an fMRI, Nichols said, and you’ll see a more distributed set of points, a more spherical thinking, than when you’re, say, solving a math problem, which takes more prefrontal cortex power. What’s more, surfing—as a form of exercise that involves risk-taking and play—triggers the release of feel-good hormones that help make it so enjoyable.
Surfer Magazine has some anecdotal data to back up Nichols’s points. In 2010, the outlet’s editor at the time, Sam George, wrote:
If some malevolent being came into the world that forced us to close down the doors here at the Palace of Stoke, we could continue to fill editorial pages for two years solely with letters written by surfers to tell us of their spiritual quests in the waves. It’s a phenomenon, really. And it’s one, I believe, that is unique to surfing.
Still, some of the most dedicated surfers balk at the salted spiritual musings. “You can get the same feeling playing golf,” Justin Housman, a current editor at Surfer Magazine, told me recently. “Surfers need to stop acting like we have some special access to the Tao or whatever just because we ride waves. It’s addictive because it’s fun, because you’re getting dopamine and adrenaline and serotonin. But that’s it. If you think only surfing can get you that feeling, you’ve got to get out more.”
Housman said he sees no problem with surfers taking a metaphysical or religious approach to what they love if they happen to have that orientation to life in general. But he also believes that spirituality gets unfairly foisted onto surfing to the detriment of enjoying surfing for what it is—fun. “You don’t need to add any deeper meaning to make surfing great,” Housman said. “It’s already good enough to take over your entire life.” The reason for the mystical rhetoric, Housman told me, is that surf culture and brands—the latter dependent on surfing remaining cool for its existence—have always pegged themselves to films and TV shows that reinforce that stereotype.
* * *
In the ’60s and ’70s, surf media tended to depict surfers as symbols of a life outside the rat race (like with the classic 1966 documentary The Endless Summer) or figures communing with the gravity of the moon (the 1971 film Morning of the Earth)—all reflections of the hippie and back-to-the-land ethos. Surfers in that era experimented with psychedelics as much as any subculture group, and Timothy Leary even spoke of the tube as the ultimate metaphor for “the highly conscious life.” In the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, surf flicks pivoted toward competitive and human-versus-nature themes, perhaps a reflection of Cold War posturing. But even in films about professional contests (North Shore) or adrenaline junkies conquering death-defying waves (Riding Giants, In God’s Hands, Point Break), there is always a soul-searching bent. Recall that Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break, for example, is named Bodhi, short for bodhisattva, a being who embodies the Buddhist ideal of compassion for all sentient beings.
In the internet age, mass media about surfing touches on a bit of everything, though contests and Red Bull stunts play a huge role. Now there are more contemplative films about female empowerment, including the 2011 Bethany Hamilton biopic Soul Surfer and the documentary about women surfers It Ain’t Pretty. Other movies criticize consumer culture, like 2010’s Stoked and Broke and 180° South (the latter features Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, reflecting on his Zen practice and its overlap with surfing). But no matter the era, Housman said there have been far too many surf books and films with the words “soul” or “Tao” in them, a phenomenon he attributes to surfing gaining its popularity during the Beatnik and hippie eras. Now the baby-boomer surfers’ kids are grown up, addicted to surfing, and basically continuing the trip.
Housman isn’t a surf jock arguing for more wave pools and more Olympics (this coming summer Olympics will be the first for surfers). “I’d push back on surfing being called a sport alone,” he said, leaving the activity’s definition open-ended. His point, however, which many surfers would echo, is to let surfing be surfing.
Identifying too closely with surfing—whether spiritually, athletically, or territorially—can also add to what many see as the sport’s dark underbelly. Surfers are famous for becoming like angry zealots when access to their god—the waves— gets obstructed by crowds, fueling gang-like turf wars in hotspots like Palos Verdes. Steven Kotler’s book West of Jesus captured this tension well: “The irony of it was that most of the people considered surfing a religious experience and that their religious experience was being ruined by all the others surfing for the same reason.”
So why does surfing appear to be so much more freighted with spiritual meaning than other water sports? One key distinction is the structure and pace of the activity. Yes, there are those brief adrenaline pumping moments of actually riding a wave, but in between sets are long lulls when the surfer is just waiting, bobbing, staring at a horizon—time in which there’s nothing to do but breathe and consider saltwater’s flirtatious dance with the sunlight and sky. So whether you’re spiritual or not, there’s still a need for a contemplative solitude in relative stillness. There’s also the constant paradox of having to exert great effort to paddle, while simultaneously surrendering to the power of a wave you’re riding (or falling into)—a Zen metaphor if ever there was one.
All this may feed into why, when you look at the science of peak experiences, water and music are basically tied for first place, Nichols told me. “The ‘oneness thing’ people get is, in a sense, a brain-chemistry response of letting go of that ‘need to know.’ And interestingly, that’s also where the poetry and music is.” Of course, it would be reductive to say neuroscience explains away rapturous moments in the waves—moments that perhaps become spiritual when there is a spiritual language to describe them. And as Housman suggested, surfing is not unique in its ability to give people more happiness, well-being, and awe. But Nichols’s point—and also Carol Schuldt’s—seems to be that water is the best at it. “We try to re-create the water with stained glass, grand architecture,” Nichols said, “but it really doesn’t get close to the real thing.”
Schuldt, for her part, agrees. After doing her own readings on biology and astrophysics, she thinks science has only scratched the surface in revealing why the water is so healing for people. Part of of her reasoning is personal: Her son, Peter, was hit by a car when he was just 3 years old. The doctors warned he’d be completely dependent on others for life, if he made it at all. Unable to accept that prognosis, Schuldt took Peter off life support and rolled his frail body in the icy surf. Today, Peter has a crooked gait and slurred speech, but lives a full life, competing in swimming and running—a fact his mother attributes to his daily saltwater therapy.
But if you really want to understand Schuldt’s religion, follow her on her afternoon ritual sometime, up the steep hill she rides on that old cruiser. Hike another mile with her over the golden dunes, gather firewood, build a bonfire, dive into the cold waters for a bodysurf—and, perhaps, wait for a revelation.
“People ask, ‘How do you do this, at your age,’” she said with a laugh. “I tell them to jump in the ocean.”
Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult’
Jim DeRogatis | BuzzFeed
“The music industry has a history of stars using their fame to gain the trust of young women—and their parents—who expect professional relationships but end up in sexual ones. But numerous sources, including women who left his inner circle, made on-the-record allegations suggesting ongoing mental and physical abuse of several women in [R.] Kelly’s entourage far beyond that of the groupie culture.”
John Boyega on Star Wars, Detroit, and Staying Sane With the Help of Robert Downey Jr.
Anna Peele | GQ
“The face we were seeing held warm deep-set eyes darting around the desert while sweat dripped down his forehead. Lips parted to reveal clenched teeth. It was all very human—and he seemed convincingly terrified. Boyega's talent was so obvious that you see him on the screen and think, Yeah, that guy belongs here.”
Justin Taylor | The Paris Review
“Here’s a thesis: All of Dawson’s Creek makes infinitely more sense, and is significantly more enjoyable, if you stop thinking about it as a show ‘about’ Dawson Leery and start thinking about it as a show about Pacey and Joey, and the grinding misery of growing up working-class in a snow-globe town where all your friends are well-to-do.”
Watching Fox & Friends, Trump Sees a Two-Way Mirror
James Poniewozik | The New York Times
“President Trump is the show’s subject, its programmer, its publicist, and its virtual fourth host. The stars offer him flattery, encouragement and advice. When he tweets, his words and image appear on a giant video wall. It’s the illusion of children’s TV—that your favorite show is as aware of you as you are of it—except that for Mr. Trump, it’s real.”
How Elisabeth Moss Became an Accidental Activist When Handmaid’s Tale Took on Trump
Lacey Rose | The Hollywood Reporter
“What makes this round of recognition different is not simply that her odds of taking home a statuette are greater than they've ever been but also that the universally lauded Hulu series has redefined Moss's career—as an actress, a producer and, at first reluctantly, an activist for women's rights. ‘What I've learned is, now is not really a time to stand in the middle,’ she says. ‘You've got to pick a side.’”
A Cloudy Future: Why It Matters If Soundcloud Lives or Dies
Michaelangelo Matos | The Village Voice
“SoundCloud, then, was by DJs for DJs. It just so happened that its orange casing, its waveform, its ability to target a comment to any point on an upload’s unfolding time grid, and its possessing the easiest interface imaginable happened to apply to discrete songs as well as DJ sets.”
O.J. Simpson’s Pop-Culture Resurgence Has Reframed His Celebrity—and the Era of His Downfall
Alissa Wilkinson | Vox
“It’s always hard to really make out what’s happening in the moment. More than 20 years after Simpson’s acquittal, though, things became more clear. In many ways, the 1990s sketched out the blueprint for America circa 2016—not just the Clinton shenanigans and the Simpson trial and the Rodney King riots, but all kinds of events, fears, rhetoric, and personalities.”
The Uses of Beauty: On Daughters of the Dust and Diasporic Inheritance
Carina del Valle Schorske | Los Angeles Review of Books
“Daughters of the Dust involves its own characters in the argument over how best to carry this weight—the unbearable weight of diasporic inheritance. What does it mean to hold steady in minority experience while also charting new waters? To take the world’s horizon as the ultimate horizon of communication?”
Gillian Robespierre’s new film Landline is a harbinger of an inevitable trend, one as mundane for some viewers as it might be terrifying for others. Landline has all the trappings of a period piece—attention is paid to specific costuming, none of the characters have cellphones, and everyone’s sexual politics feel a little out of date. But Landline is not set in the swinging ’60s, not even in the shoulder-padded ’80s—it’s a melancholy comedy set in 1995, with some of the visual hallmarks and specific Manhattan geography of a Nora Ephron film. That’s right: The ’90s are ancient history now.
But while Robespierre’s film, her follow-up to the wonderfully sharp 2014 abortion comedy Obvious Child, feels reminiscent of many a classic ’90s Manhattan love story, it doesn’t echo the clean rom-com storytelling of the genre. She digs into her ensemble’s flaws far more eagerly than their strengths, and endeavors to create a more well-rounded portrait of love, relationships, and infidelity in which there are no clear winners or losers. Landline, as such, feels like a bit of a chore to watch at times—don’t expect an emotional reunion on top of the Empire State Building—but that’s the idea. The film doesn’t want to wrap things up cleanly, and it takes the ’90s as the epicenter of a shift in family values, one where the idea of coupling up is more frightening than it is reassuring.
Robespierre’s trump card is Jenny Slate—the comedian and actress who made Obvious Child such a joy to watch, and who should be acknowledged as a full-blown star based on her performance here as Dana Jacobs, the eldest child of the Jacobs clan. Her mother, the somewhat severe Pat (Edie Falco), is a hyper-critical bad cop, with her listless-seeming husband Alan (John Turturro) largely parenting from the sidelines. Dana’s younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is a high schooler flirting with typical forms of rebellion—drug use, staying out late, and pre-marital sex—while Dana is fretting over her relationship to her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), which is stuck in a serious rut as they plan for their wedding.
Plenty of rather stereotypical interpersonal drama over various couplings and uncouplings plays out over the next 90 minutes. Dana flirts with a former flame, the jocky Nate (Finn Wittrock), while Ali goes into an emotional tailspin as she guesses that her dopey dad might be having an affair. There’s lots of yelling, an interlude at the family’s country home, and some difficult conversations, all of it mixed in with the acidic humor that pervaded Obvious Child a little more thoroughly.
But Slate helps keep any scene she’s in afloat, never letting Dana seem like a ’90s career-girl cliché, nor leaning on her own more uninhibited personality. Obvious Child saw Slate playing a stand-up comedian, so I wondered if her convincing work there was helped along by the character’s more autobiographical nature. But in Landline, she’s just as fully realized: Though she retains Slate’s incredible honking laugh, she otherwise lacks her self-possessed spirit. Her flirtation with Nate as her wedding approaches might seem like a tired plot contrivance if it weren’t for Slate’s quiet grasp of Dana’s anxieties about commitment.
The rest of the cast, despite their efforts, don’t fare quite as well as Slate. Ali’s rebellion feels non-threatening, while Pat and Alan, struggling with their frayed connection, operates mostly as satellites in Dana’s larger crisis of matrimony. Though the ’90s setting is pivotal to the themes Robespierre (who co-wrote with Elisabeth Holm) is trying to explore—namely, the subdued and oft-necessary disintegration of some of these traditional family values—in practice, the throwback clothes and soundtrack often feel gimmicky, less a part of the film’s environment and more just tacky window dressing.
Pat’s characterization was the toughest of all to swallow. While Robespierre is obviously aiming to depict this family’s flaws and foibles, warts and all, she’s a little too one-dimensionally crotchety to ever sympathize with. Falco and Turturro are talented enough to suggest the faintest hint of some lost chemistry between them, but there’s not much of it in the writing. The only relationship in Landline that really feels salvageable is Dana’s, with Ben—Duplass is well-cast as the sweet, ineffectual guy, the type who usually gets left behind in the Nora Ephron movie.
But Robespierre doesn’t do quite enough to earn their reconciliation either, as the film swerves from its dramatic second act to a more wistful conclusion. In the end, Landline succumbs to a trope it spends much of its running time eagerly trying to avoid—it ties things up with a bow, and promises a bright future for everybody. If I wanted to remember some idealized version of the ’90s, there are plenty of old movies I can watch. Landline doesn’t seem to want to join their ranks, but its ending is too tidy, too pat, to avoid that fate.
Last week we asked readers to share: What’s your favorite Jane Austen-related adaptation? Or, if you prefer: What’s your least favorite? What film versions of the novels fill you with joy, or wonder, or ire? What TV shows or web series do you find compelling and true to Austen’s insights?
And: You all came through! We got several votes of enthusiasm for books like Amanda Grange’s novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary and Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, movies like Austenland, TV shows like Lost in Austen, and web series like Jane Austen’s Fight Club (for the simple but important reason that, as Lynn Gray, of Harstene Island, Washington, explains, “it’s outrageously funny”).
We also got many, many votes for Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 adaptation of Emma. Which, as Cassie Myers of Stanford, California, explained, “captures the emotions and wit of the books, the actors are fantastic, and it reminds me why her stories are so universal.”
Or, as Tana, from Denver, put it in explaining her enthusiasm for the story of Cher Horowitz, Beverly Hills resident:
I’m not a Jane Austen fan at all—I found her novels tiring and the endless obsession with class and marriage boring (admittedly, this was as a teen. I haven’t yet revisited, and have a sneaking suspicion I’d find Pride and Prejudice tolerable today). All of that said, Clueless is fun! It was released when I was 10, and was bright and shiny enough to enthrall those of us not yet in the race for soulmates. Cher and Dionne’s “Whatever” (and Amber’s associated hand gesture) didn’t just pass through our vocabulary but entrenched itself. We wanted their closets and their cell phones.
As I got older, it’s retained that charm and added new layers, as we look back at the early careers of some of our current favorite actors. Jeremy Sisto is awful and perfect as Elton, and I can’t think of or hear The Cranberries without thinking of him. Paul Rudd is every guy you meet at a liberal arts college. Breckin Meyer!! And Brittany Murphy, beautiful, charming, hummingbird Brittany Murphy, whose Tai is so resonant and so funny that every time she’s on screen I’m laughing and crying—because she reminds me of what we lost when Murphy died. Donald Faison is luminescent. And Alicia Silverstone got Cher.
I remember the movie being marketed as the zany adventures of a ditzy blonde and her narcissistic rich LA friends—and it’s definitely that but it’s so much more. There is a wellspring of good laughs and good vibes—and some of the finest men collected in one place onscreen. Altogether, I think this is my favorite because it doesn’t feel like Austen—it isn’t taxing or laborious, but its moral and vision are strong.
Jane lies in Winchester
Blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her,
And her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester—
Or Milsom Street—remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour
Unto England’s Jane!
— Rudyard Kipling
On a spring afternoon 25 years ago, my mother took my baby sister and me to the grave of Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral. It would have been 1992, and quite late in the spring, as photos of that day have me in short sleeves and my sister wearing a summery little dress in her stroller. She was 2, I was 6, and Austen had been dead for 175 years.
The grave left little impression on me at the time—I didn’t know much about Austen, except that she was my mother’s favorite writer and that she had died not far from where we stood and that her bones were now beneath us. In the days when England’s church was allied with Rome, Winchester had been consecrated to Saint Swithin, and—as Mom explained—it was three days after the Feast of Saint Swithin in 1817 that Austen breathed her last in that city, under the care of better doctors than could have been found closer to the Chawton cottage where she spent the last eight years of her life. The tombstone says a lot of nice things about her character but doesn’t mention once that she was a writer. My mother, an English professor whose expertise is the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, told me that this was an odd omission, and I wondered whether Austen’s ghost lurked, displeased, beneath the stones of the cathedral.
What my mother did not tell me, and what she could not have known, was that, two decades later, I would find myself putting on Regency costumes and attending balls and banquets across North America, nor that—in a curious inversion of roles—I would eventually persuade her to dispense with academic self-seriousness and actually start wearing the costumes herself. All of this happened after I had joined the ranks of those enthusiastic literary necromancers who regularly summon Austen’s ghost.
These are the fans and disciples of Austen, known collectively as the Janeites, a term coined in the 1890s by the critic George Saintsbury. In the 21st century, they pop about the globe, now visiting Austen’s grave at Winchester, now visiting her haunts in Bath, now attending the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where hundreds of Janeites materialize each year in Minneapolis or Montréal or Washington, D.C., to exhibit their finest examples of Regency formalwear, to hear the brightest Austen scholars talk about their ideas of the author—was Austen a secret radical? was she a reactionary? was she queer?—and to dispute those ideas with the proprietary vim of a family member.
Shared fandom is an endorsement of one’s own eccentric enthusiasms, a world of like minds, a collective agreement to treat as wisdom what the rest of the world long ago dismissed as folly. As such, fandom of any sort is a salve for loneliness, but Austen fandom doubly so, as her books, and the communities that they evoke, feel so very snug, so neatly governed by the basic rule that in properly reading one another, we get closer to our best selves.
* * *
I fell into the world of Janeites very nearly on accident during my graduate studies in English, where Austen was an important but hardly central figure in my research (I was mainly studying the ways that 18th-century British satirists shaped their voices using tools from the poets of ancient Rome). But for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice in 2013, my grad-school advisor decided to establish the first annual Jane Austen summer camp at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I accepted a very modest stipend to help with duties that I was assured would be largely clerical. But then they needed someone to play Mr. Darcy, and I was one of the only people in the zip code who identified as male and also studied Austen, so the call came down, and I agreed to impersonate the dour but redeemable patrician. And thus began an unexpected, yearlong tour through this odd, stylish, recondite world.
Most people harbor a dim or at least narrow view of the Janeites, and when friends heard I had fallen in with this crowd of petticoat-wearers and novel-readers, they were quick to offer words of caution: Beware the insufferable spinsters, they whispered; the Janeites will all be strange social outcasts, the sort of people who trust no one but their cats. My well-wishers made these ludicrous suggestions with a hint of worry, as though they thought I was at risk of joining a modish cult. Only this last part was true.
The truth is that most Janeites do not knit, nor are they any more likely to keep cats than are readers of Trollope or Milton, and you’d be right to be disappointed at these tired and misogynist stereotypes. As for the charge of spinsterhood: Simply survey the room at any Janeite ball and you’ll note that the unmarried women are enjoying themselves at least as much as the married ones, so one can hardly do other than raise a glass to singledom. The families, too, are inevitably having loads of fun, and some of the Janeites whom I love most are the little kin-connected units who treat Austen as part of a private inheritance shared between parents and children. But then, perhaps I’m just biased in favor of those families, like my own, for whom Austen is a genealogical fixture.
Loving Jane Austen can sometimes look to outsiders like a Pinterest aesthetic, and the Janeite soon becomes accustomed to dubious glances from the uninitiated. American fans of Jane Austen love her unconditionally; the English love Austen but are often embarrassed about it. E.M. Forster spent decades in just such a state. Reviewing R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s oeuvre for the New Republic in 1924, Forster’s lede is pure self-deprecation: “I am a Jane Austenite, and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” In April of 1944, during a BBC radio essay, Forster once more made an apologetic bleat, expressing his diffident but ardent love: “I am so fond of her. She’s English, I’m English, and my fondness for her may be rather a family affair. … Anyhow, please don’t dismiss her as a spinster in a backwater. She’s much more than that.”
That’s hardly a spirited defense of the artist whom Rudyard Kipling had dubbed “England’s Jane”—but I have learned from experience that apologizing for one’s Austen love is a loser’s game. I’m fond of Forster’s flaccid little apologia because my own investment in Austen is so clearly a family affair, and also because it’s clear that Forster doesn’t care very much about explaining himself. Why does he love Jane Austen? Perhaps because she’s the local talent. Perhaps because she reinvented the novel—or perhaps because the novels animate a vision of English society that, by Forster’s age, offered pre-industrial nostalgia with the trappings of realism. Forster doesn’t really elaborate. He wishes only to affirm his love, and to recommend it—to enlarge the “family” of Janeites, and to suggest her as a comfort during a wartime broadcast.
This worldwide “family” of Janeites perseveres, and their studiousness is hardly less ardent than their fandom. Indeed, the two are often inextricable; the true Janeites whom I met at conferences and cotillions are diligently invested in the novels and in various elements of Austen’s life and afterlives. Besides amateur scholars of English agrarian history, there are loads of high-school teachers and haberdashers and theater directors, plus historical novelists who spend years researching the successive fashions of the Regency, lest a single bodkin appear in the wrong decade as they’re writing their next books. Some of the clothing mavens seem to be locked in an arms race with each other: Baronda Bradley, a Janeite in Texas who has been attending JASNA conventions for 20 years, wears multiple period dresses on each day of the conference. At the 2005 convention, in Milwaukee, she was hailed as “Baronda of the 2,000 dresses,” and it’s a testament to her that I still can’t tell whether the epithet is even an exaggeration.
* * *
Unlike Bradley, my mother says that she had never worn the garb until she saw a mortifying photo of me, as Darcy, wearing white tights, cream-colored breeches, and a blue topcoat. This image was suitably disarming, and Mom was struck, too, by a new sense that one could enjoy the more frivolous bits (funny dresses!) without losing credibility; indeed, as she learned, wearing a Regency getup will earn any scholar deep street cred among the Janeites. We’ve attended two big Austen conferences together—Mom wears the gown with real panache—and after I stopped attending, she began carrying the torch for both of us. (My mother has become a regular eminence at the now-annual UNC summer camp, and every year I look forward to her live updates on the proceedings, which she delivers in long periodic sentences via text message.)
The uninitiated still wonder: Why on earth would otherwise conventional adults spend hard-earned money jetting across the United States and Canada to talk about six novels written by an unmarried Hampshire lady whose books have, in one sense, become synonymous with a sort of bourgeois predictability? What compels shy bookish types to give themselves over to elaborate cosplay? Certainly it’s true that when you’re dancing “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” or “The Duke of Kent’s Waltz”—two traditional English country dances of the early 19th century—it is natural to ask: “How the hell did I get here?”
But the question dissipates amid a thousand more immediate concerns: The clasp on your waistcoat is coming undone, or you’re about to tread on your partner’s toes, or you can’t tell whether that cute Janeite in the corner is admiring or laughing at you. Then you finally talk to her, you discover that she’s literally quoting the novels to you as a form of flirtation, and you start to recognize: Austen brings us Janeites together and then gives us a script for how to get along, how to read the room, how to observe, reflect, and behave in a small community of others whose feelings and fates may well be bound up with our own.
And so, clasped in the public intimacy of a Regency cotillion, you see that Janeism offers its acolytes a peculiar sort of consolation, and a brief cure for social atomization: a flattering, antiquarian remix of our dissipated modern selves. It’s a retreat, too, to a fictional world where politeness was sexy, and where villainy and bad manners were eventually punished. It’s an unlikely and heterodox community, driven into one another’s arms by Austen. In this way, the novelist has her vindication: The Winchester tombstone may not mention the novels, but their charms are sufficiently lasting that they continue to propel us into tights and petticoats during heat waves, 200 years after she died.
Tyler, the Creator became famous, in part, for being hateful. When his rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (“Odd Future” is fine) caught buzz around 2010, it was because of their delirious energy and Eminem-like love of mayhem. But it was their threats against women and “faggots,” delivered in song and on social media, that elevated them from subculture phenomenon to become essay prompt and political flashpoint. The likes of GLAAD and the band Tegan and Sara declared Tyler poisonous and asked the music industry to stop supporting him. Theresa May, back when she was home secretary of the U.K., took the extraordinary step of banning him from her country because his lyrics “encourage violence and intolerance of homosexuality.”
Now Tyler, age 26, has delivered an album with an altogether different kind of shock to its lyrics. “Next line will have 'em like ‘whoa’,” he says with trademark gruffness. “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”
It’s one of a number of times on Flower Boy (unofficial title: Scum Fuck Flower Boy) in which Tyler seems to reference his own same-sex attraction. The aching journey of “Garden Shed” comes off as a confession from the closet (actually, the “shed”), and for the album’s intro he says he’s been “in the woods with flowers, rainbows, and posies.” Elsewhere, he searches for a lover who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio and brags about driving with a guy who looks like River Phoenix.
If Tyler’s now “out,” it’s a landmark moment: He’d be the highest-profile queer male rapper in a genre that, like all pop genres to varying extents, has long traded in homophobia. The way Tyler’s now presenting himself can also be seen as a sign of the murkiness of celebrity identity, a signal of generationally shifting sexual attitudes, and the contradictions of the closet itself.
Stipulated—maybe Tyler is just trolling. His early albums were wars between different alter-egos: There was a masked maniac who smoked pot and broke stuff; there was a murderous cat; there was a calm therapist coaching Tyler to get a grip. The centerpiece of 2015’s Cherry Bomb was an intoxicating/queasy contribution to the pop tradition of lusting after an underage girl. Perhaps he’s simply now introducing a fictional “Flower Boy” persona who makes out with guys.
But if it’s a con, it’s a committed one. In 2015, he tweeted, “I tried to come out the damn closet like four days ago and no one cared hahahhahaha,” and he rapped, “How can I be homophobic when my boyfriend’s a fag? / And we been hiding in the closet like our passion is fashion, still trying to come out.” He’s referred to himself with gay slurs over the years and has joked—or not joked—about having a thing for freckly white guys. He also put out a controversial t-shirt that re-worked neo-Nazi imagery with the rainbow flag. Then there’s this passage from a 2015 Rolling Stone profile by Ernest Baker:
For the past two days I’ve wondered, is Tyler actually gay? I cannot emphasize how much gay humor plays a role in the atmosphere around him. It’s like a continuous loop of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Never more than a few minutes pass without him saying he’s going to suck someone’s dick or him accusing someone of wanting to suck dick. At one point on the bus, he recalls sending nude photos to a group chat with his friends and no one responded. “My friends are so used to me being gay,” Tyler says, “they don't even care.”
I finally ask, Why all the gay humor? “Because I’m gay as fuck,” he says, without a flinch. Seriously, are you gay? Are these repressed feelings? “No, but I am in love with ’96 Leonardo DiCaprio,” he says. “I one hundred percent would go gay for ’96 Leo. Oh, and Cole Sprouse.”
In all of this Tyler may be staging a crasser version of the public process Frank Ocean went through in declaring his non-straightness. Ocean’s news came from an open letter in which he talked about a relationship with a man; he still hasn’t publicly identified with a label, whether “bisexual” or “gay” or “queer,” and his songs spin stories about affairs with both genders. Tyler has cheekily accepted and rejected the term “gay” over the years, and he doesn’t use it on Flower Boy, an album preoccupied with matters of the heart. Over a musical palette generally gentler than that which he was originally known for—more spacey synth jazz than noise—he confesses to deep loneliness and nostalgia for past loves. It’s the individual relationships, not his overall identity grouping, that’s the focus here.
“The homie not gay, he just likes dudes,” Odd Future associate Mike G tweeted after Flower Boy’s lyrics began to leak online. This sort of post-labelism is certainly in vogue, and Tyler, as much as a millennial icon as any musician, may be embracing it. Notably he justified his previous use of slurs with a philosophically adjacent thought: Words are pliable, their meaning up to the user. In 2013, he said of “faggot” on The Arsenio Hall Show, “That’s just a word, you can take the power out of that word. The way that I see things, it’s you chose to be offended if you care more about stuff like that.”
Tyler’s career now and before, though, actually shows the extent to which such words do have fixed meanings—and gay slurs reinforce a stigma that he may well have struggled with. “My step-father called me a fag, I’ll show him a fag / I’ll light a fire up in his ass,” he rapped on 2013’s “Pigs,” a song inspired by the mindset of the Columbine shooters. Tyler knows that words can wound. “I’m not homophobic. I just think ‘faggot’ hits and hurts people,” he told NME, though he then added: “‘Gay’ just means you’re stupid.”
On some level he had to understand that conflating a sexual identity with being stupid is an insult to that identity, and the fact that he could make that conflation was because of longstanding stigmas. After all, why does the closet exist in the first place? Why’d he post this drawing, a pretty clear depiction of anxiety over coming out? Why is the Flower Boy track “Garden Shed” so shot through with turmoil—“Them feelings that I was guardin’ heavy on my mind / All my friends lost, they couldn’t read the signs”? Why does he preface his admission about kissing boys with a line anticipating backlash?
Being anything other than straight, Tyler’s latest chapter implies and modern queer history would confirm, is still not a socially neutral status. Tyler knows that people are still told—in ways big and small, intended and not—that same-sex romance is something to be hated. If he’s not propagating the same stigma anymore, the apparent revelations of Flower Boy are a reminder that it’s not only straight people who can be infected by homophobia. One of Tyler’s most famous lyrics, from 2011’s “Yonkers,” now comes off like a classic queer declaration, showing an internal battle between shame and fear and desire: “I’m a fucking walking paradox / no I’m not.”
How ‘I Do’ Became Performance Art—Megan Garber traces how the American wedding theatrical complex was born, with the help of a massive coffee table book, 30 years ago.
Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze—Megan Garber shows how the novelist’s writing fits perfectly into the culture of the moment.
‘On the Wrong Side of Five-and-Thirty’: How Jane Austen Grew Up—Matt Thompson looks at how the novelist portrayed age in her books, from writing a draft of Sense and Sensibility as a teen to being the age of the older characters she mocked by the time it was published.
Jane Austen and the Redemption of Gawkiness—Rosa Inocencio Smith explores the writer’s soft spot for awkward talkers and stumbling lovers, which provided relief to her growing up as a shy person.
Making Peace With Jane Austen’s Marriage Plots—Sophie Gilbert dives into how the writer’s work has done more than any other author’s to influence what “happily ever after” means in culture.
Queering the Work of Jane Austen Is Nothing New—Devoney Looser unfurls the history of performers and writers who’ve been subverting the novelist’s reputation as the go-to author for heterosexual love since the Victorian era.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk Is a Masterpiece—Christopher Orr calls the director’s new war film boldly experimental and visually stunning.
A Wrinkle in Time Defies Disney’s Sequel-Filled Future—David Sims points out that Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic book is one of the studio’s only upcoming movies that’s not a follow-up or remake.
How The Fifth Element Subverted Sci-Fi Movies—David Sims explains that Luc Besson’s visually stunning film hinged its story not on action or violence, but on love.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Is a One-of-a-Kind Space Odyssey—David Sims watches the new sci-fi epic, a visual sensation that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Game of Thrones Gears Up for the Wars Still to Come—David Sims, Lenika Cruz, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss the first episode of the seventh season.
Friends From College Is a Tragedy of Arrested Development—Sophie Gilbert reviews the new Netflix series, a strange dive into what happens when people can’t grow up.
Game of Thrones: About That Cameo—Megan Garber contemplates an interesting appearance in last Sunday’s episode.
Ozark: Netflix’s Grim Foray Into Flyover Country—Sophie Gilbert watches the drama, which follows a Chicago financial adviser forced to move to Missouri to launder money for a cartel.
Remembering Chester Bennington—Spencer Kornhaber pays tribute to the Linkin Park singer, who may have been the purest voice of angst on the radio this millennium.
R. Kelly’s Alleged Sex ‘Cult’ and the Shield of Fame—Spencer Kornhaber analyzes a BuzzFeed report that says the R&B singer has at least six women living under his total control.
How Jon Batiste Made ‘Battle Hymn’ Bittersweet—Spencer Kornhaber talks to the jazz musician about putting the “pain and struggle” of American history into the patriotic classic.
The Classic Queer Paradox of Tyler, the Creator—Spencer Kornhaber listens to the rapper’s new album Flower Boy, on which he suggests he’s not straight and struggles with the stigma he helped to propagate.
Federer’s Wimbledon Win Was Anything but Nostalgic—Arnav Adhikari examines how the Swiss tennis legend has shown he’s still full of surprises in a throwback 2017 season.
Earlier today, The Atlantic debuted its flagship podcast, Radio Atlantic, along with its theme song: Julia Ward Howe’s iconic Civil-War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reinterpreted by renowned jazz musician Jon Batiste.
The lyrics of the “Battle Hymn” premiered in our pages in February 1862, a little more than 155 years ago, for the price of four dollars. The song captured the spirit of the young magazine, which had been founded less than five years earlier with the aims of ending slavery and advancing “the American idea.” And it resonated similarly with the moral and patriotic ideals of the embattled Union. As Dominic Tierney wrote in 2010:
During the Civil War, the “Battle Hymn” became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches.
Like The Atlantic, the song endured long after the abolitionist cause won the day. Of its lasting impact, Tierney observed:
The story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song … is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem. We have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. The “Battle Hymn” has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. … It would endure as America’s wartime anthem long after the guns fell silent in 1865.
The song has retained a special significance for us at The Atlantic, too, embodying the remarkable history and guiding principles of the publication even now, a century and a half after we first published it. As our editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg says on Radio Atlantic, “Julia Ward Howe’s poem was the best investment of four dollars our magazine has ever made.”
Here are the opening lines of the “Battle Hymn”:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
You can find the rest of the lyrics here. Then, watch Jon Batiste reinterpret the classic melody and read about the meaning behind his modern arrangement. And don’t miss the first episode of Radio Atlantic, where you can listen to Batiste play the song in full, hear the story behind the original composition of the “Battle Hymn,” and learn more about its significance to The Atlantic.
Among the many readers who answered our call for Jane Austen introduction stories, we heard from some whose early encounters with the novelist’s work had blossomed into careers. Take Linda Troost, an academic who acquired her first Austen book by chance in 1972:
I fished a late–19th-century copy of Pride and Prejudice bound with Northanger Abbey out of a billiard table. I was at a National Trust (USA) book sale at the Woodrow Wilson House and the book cost $1. I originally bought it just for the nice binding.
I’ve ended up making an academic career from the study of Austen, especially adaptations, and I’ve done it in collaboration with my academic husband. It doesn’t get better than that.
Check out one of Linda’s books, Jane Austen in Hollywood, here.
Lauren in Chicago is technically Team Brontë on the literary podcast she co-hosts—but her love for Austen helped lead her to start it:
Pride and Prejudice was required summer reading for me during middle school. I instantly fell in love and carried it around with me all summer long. I had to buy a second copy before the school year started because I took my original copy to the pool where it met with an unfortunate ending.
Jane Austen is responsible for so many of my friendships. My best friend Hannah and I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over who is the best Austen heroine. Obviously it’s Lizzy Bennet, but Hannah insists that it’s Anne Elliot, which is nonsense.
We argue about it so much we started a podcast about Jane Austen and we get to now argue with other Janeites all over the world. It’s called Austen vs. Bronte: Bonnets at Dawn. I spend my days researching and talking Austen in preparation for an upcoming book based on the podcast.
More on that book:
At the beginning of the first episode of Ozark, Netflix’s bleak drug drama du jour, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is in a kind of existential midlife funk: His wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), is cheating on him; his kids are growing into entitled nightmares; and his job as a financial adviser appears to be lamentably unfulfilling. Then, suddenly, the show flips everything on its head. Marty’s business partner has apparently been stealing millions from a Mexican drug lord and is murdered in front of him. Marty’s only recourse is to plead for his life and propose a new plan—he’ll launder $500 million in drug money by moving to the Lake of the Ozarks, a man-made reservoir in Missouri and a popular holiday destination that he argues will be less conspicuous to the FBI.
Ozark, which contains so many fragments and threads from existing prestige shows that it sometimes feels like a particularly grim televisual quilt, is at least pleasingly tense in its first episode. Smug, larcenous businessmen are shot in the head. Bodies appear out of thin air (literally). Del (Esai Morales), the requisite ruthless cartel member, threatens not only Marty’s life but the lives of his wife and children while dissolving bodies in tubs of acid. It’s fair to say that the pressure on Marty to deliver is substantial. Which is why it’s so perplexing when he waddles morosely through the next six episodes with all the energy of a post-divorce Ross from Friends. A midlife crisis is one thing, but a persistent, dull, woe-is-me malaise when three separate crime families are threatening your loved ones starts to feel like self-indulgence.
Ozark has the potential to be many interesting things, and the fact that it commits to none of them feels like overextension. With America’s rural and coastal divide sharper than ever, a premise that drops a tony Chicago family into flyover country is full of promise, particularly because Bill Dubuque, the show’s creator, worked in the area during college, and still lives in Missouri. Even if you’re as hell-bent on dourness as Ozark is, the environment is rich with narrative potential, as the stories of Daniel Woodrell and the 2010 film Winter’s Bone would attest. And yet Ozark can’t get into it. It wants to unpack this intriguing rural community, but it also wants to be a drama about an unlikely criminal, like Breaking Bad, and a show about a boring marriage revived by a shared mission, like The Americans, and a fable about how everyone’s trying to make a living the best way they know how, just like The Wire.
With all these conflicting goals, Ozark mostly flops weakly from crisis to crisis, like one of the catfish Marty pretends to know how to bait. By the end of the second episode, he and Wendy, their teenage daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and their young son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) are installed in a lakefront house, and Marty has been assigned the test of laundering $8 million to prove he can make it in this new community. His arrogance, of course, is misplaced. The locals have their own ways of doing things, and some even appear to be doing some laundering of their own. There are the requisite culture clashes (a particularly dull plot point revolves around Wendy’s inability to source organic pistachio ice cream) and lessons about condescension. And yet the show itself often views its local characters through a rather snotty lens, from the homophobic brawlers rearing bobcat kittens to the heavily pregnant stripper working a pole.
Bateman, who also directed four of the series’s 10 episodes, is always an arresting on-camera presence, but Marty’s enigmatic qualities start to feel maddeningly inconsistent midway through. In moments of crisis, he has the bravado and the balls to talk himself out of certain death, but the rest of the time he’s strangely inept, trusting the wrong people, saying the wrong things, and getting into ever more trouble. He’s a helmet-wearing bicycle dad in a community full of Ford pickups, but he also proves repeatedly how ruthless he can be. This particular cocktail of comical dorkiness and cold business-mindedness seems like a deliberate attempt to ape Walter White, but Ozark’s commitment to shrouding Marty’s motivations in mystery makes him less persuasive.
Linney, as Wendy, tries to make her shrewish, unfaithful wife character dynamic rather than sympathetic, but she isn’t really given the storylines to pull it off (a flashback episode late in the series gives her more to work with). One distinctive element of Ozark is that its female characters are all steely to the core—Charlotte punches a local only a few episodes in, and a local bar owner (Jordana Spiro) isn’t as easy a mark for Marty as she seems. The most compelling presence is Ruth (Julia Garner), a 19-year-old described by the sheriff as smart and mean, with her criminal potential “mostly untapped.” With her cherubic blonde curls and Tupac shirts, Ruth is one of the characters the show really tries to flesh out, proving what it could do if it stuck with wholly original ideas.
In a twist on prestige-TV tropes, where teenage daughters tend to be utilized more than sons (Bobby Draper syndrome), Jonah is actually more interesting than Charlotte, with even his parents trying to figure out whether he’s morbid in a sociopath way or a normal, pre-teen boy way. But then there’s Agent Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who hovers on the periphery like a particularly irritating mosquito and whose presence as an FBI agent pursuing Marty adds absolutely nothing to proceedings. Given how laconically Marty responds to the bloodthirsty drug dealers on his back, who cares about some feds thrown into the mix? In combination with the dull gray and blue filters that wash everything out, and the oppressive, low-frequency soundtrack meant to amp up the tension, it all starts to feel like a lot of work for a very uncertain payoff.
What is Dunkirk?
The answer is more complicated than one might imagine. Director Christopher Nolan’s latest is a war film, of course, yet one in which the enemy scarcely makes an appearance. It is a $150 million epic, yet also as lean and spare as a haiku, three brief, almost wordless strands of narrative woven together in a mere 106 minutes of running time. It is classic in its themes—honor, duty, the horror of war—yet simultaneously Nolan’s most radical experiment since Memento. And for all these reasons, it is a masterpiece.
The historical moment captured by the film ascended long ago to the level of martial lore: In May 1940, in the early days of World War II, some 400,000 British and Allied troops were flanked and entrapped by Germany on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. Although the Channel was narrow enough that the men could almost see across to England, the waters were too shallow for warships to approach the beaches. So a flotilla of some 700 civilian craft—the “Little Ships of Dunkirk”—made their way from Ramsgate in England to assist in the rescue.
When it was announced that Nolan intended to make a film about the evacuation, it was easy to anticipate a kind of Saving Private Ryan in reverse, departing rather than landing upon a French beach. In classic war epic form, there would be the buildup and laying out of context, the unfurling of backstories, the explanation of geography, the rolling waves of sentiment, the tectonic running time. Instead, Nolan has stripped his film bare of such trappings. There are no generals making plans around tables, no loved ones worrying back home, no Winston Churchill. Just the men and the beach and the sea and the sky.
Apart from a handful of Luftwaffe planes, there aren’t even any Nazis, merely the knowledge that their artillery lies over the hills and their U-boats prowl beneath the waves. They are less an enemy than an existential threat, and at times Dunkirk feels less like a war film than a disaster movie. Except for the aerial dogfights, there is no “fighting,” and certainly no “winning.” There is simply not dying.
Nolan’s three stories take place on land, on sea, and in the air, and although they are intercut with surgical precision, they take place over three separate but overlapping spans of time. Over the course of a week, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the beach at Dunkirk, there to wait with the masses of his fellows for a rescue that may or may not arrive. Over the course of a day, a British civilian (Mark Rylance) and two teenagers pilot his small wooden yacht across the Channel to save whomever they can. And over the course of an hour, an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) tussles with the Luftwaffe in the skies, trying to protect the men below. Occasionally these narratives intersect, but more often they merely offer alternative vantages, a Rashomon in which the separate tales are intended to enrich rather than confound one another.
I hesitate to write more about the plot (or plots), in part because “plot” seems almost an improper descriptive term. These are shards of story, at once intimate and clinical. There are moments of harrowing intensity and of profound humanity. Some men live, some die. There is not a great deal of time devoted to their individual characters and motivations, in part because in the latter case they aren’t particularly individual at all: The motivation is to survive. Whether it is to return home to wives or sweethearts or an empty flat is beside the point.
Rylance telegraphs human decency in that customarily exquisite Rylance manner, even when things go terribly wrong with a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) he has rescued from the waves. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy display stoic concern as, respectively, the senior naval and army officers on “the mole,” a heavy breakwater jutting into the sea and repurposed to function as a makeshift dock. And, along with Whitehead, relative acting unknowns Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (whom Nolan was reportedly unaware was a member of One Direction when he cast him) capture the youth and essential interchangeability of the frightened troops.
To top it off with an inside joke, Hardy’s pilot’s face is covered by goggles and a flight mask, marking the third time in five years (following Mad Max: Fury Road and Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises) that he has had to act with his face largely obscured. Not that there is ever any doubt about the owner of those large, evocative eyes.
But ultimately Dunkirk belongs to Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who have crafted the rare film that positively demands to be seen on a large screen. The movie was shot entirely on large-format film (75 percent of it IMAX) and it is being released in 70-mm projection in a remarkable 125 theaters across the country. As George Miller did two years ago with Fury Road, Nolan has made the film using practical effects rather than CGI whenever possible—he even spent $5 million on a vintage Luftwaffe plane in order to crash it—and the difference is palpable. Rarely has the beauty of aerial flight (or the unpleasantness of its failure) been captured so vividly.
The Battle of Dunkirk has always been that most remarkable of war stories: an utter rout reframed—and rightly so—as an iconic victory. At the end of Nolan’s film, when one of the returning men is congratulated, he muses, “All we did is survive.” The reply: “That’s enough.” But it was much more than that. Had those Allied troops not been saved, the history of the war would have been vastly different. And it is hard to imagine a better tribute to this victory of survival than Nolan’s spare, stunning, extraordinarily ambitious film.
It’s an old Jane Austen conundrum: The author never married, but her fiction suggests she was expert in the ways of desire and love. How can that be? What were her desires, and did she act on them? Questions about Austen’s sexuality recently resurfaced in warring headlines, with the BBC TV historian Lucy Worsley suggesting that Austen “almost certainly never had sex with a man and may have instead engaged in ‘lesbian sex.’” Worsley’s conjecture provoked predictable reposts and ripostes. Speculations about Austen’s romantic life have proven reliable fodder for sensational headlines, so it’s unsurprising that they’d resurface this year, with celebrations of the bicentenary of the author’s death at a fever pitch.
Scholars are no closer to pinning down the truth about Austen’s amorous longings and intimate experiences. Yet there’s at least one part of Austen’s legacy that may be described as queer, in the most expansive sense of that word: her posthumous performance history. Starting in the Victorian era, actors and playwrights shifted Austen’s characters away from traditional gender roles and heterosexuality, in works of entertainment that ranged from mildly gender-fluid to perfectly queer. In front of live audiences, Miss Bates was often a man, there were female Darcys aplenty, and the first professional actors playing Jane and Cassandra were real-life lovers.
Austen’s novels themselves offer hints of the unorthodox trends in her afterlife. While her fictional stock-in-trade is courtship between men and women with culminating nuptials, Austen’s characters are not always easily slotted into heteronormative boxes. Critics since the 1950s have been arguing over the extent to which Emma’s heroine, Emma Woodhouse, skews more masculine than feminine. They’ve debated whether she has a crush (or more) on her protégée Harriet Smith, as the Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson has explored. The critic D.A. Miller has taken up the question of whether Sense and Sensibility’s Robert Ferrars’s sexuality ought to be called into question because of his fussing over the purchase of a toothpick case.
Both characters end up in traditional marriages, despite Austen describing them in ways that challenge presumptions about their heterosexuality and acceptance of gender norms. What has gone previously unrecognized is just how often early performers and writers engaged in similar subversion and played with Austen’s characters on stage. One of the earliest ways the author’s posthumous fame was extended to mass audiences was in read-aloud performance, with male elocutionists giving voice to Austen’s most famous spinster, the profoundly irritating Miss Bates from Emma (1815), in a popular set piece titled “The Voluble Lady.”
Austen, of course, never wrote anything called “The Voluble Lady.” The work is an excerpt of Emma culled by the writer-publisher Charles Knight in his periodical-turned-book series, Half-Hours With the Best Authors, which was reprinted from the 1840s to the 1890s. “The Voluble Lady” (a title that Knight made up) features Miss Bates chattering about her niece Jane Fairfax’s hair, friends, dances, and food in her breathlessly non-stop way. Taken from the confines of private reading, Miss Bates’s dialogue began to appear in comic routines. As I uncovered in my original research, English newspapers reported it being acted out by men: In 1861, a performance by a Mr. H. Joyner prompted an “echo of laughter” and “rapturous applause.” The Rev. H. Ray Hill played the “fidgetty old lady” to “roars of laughter” in 1865. The noted actor Henry Forrester used “The Voluble Lady” as his climactic bit in 1870.
These routines from Emma weren’t designed as gender-progressive acts. Victorian spinsters were widely considered “failed women,” and “The Voluble Lady” exists along that sexist continuum. But having a male actor voice the middle-aged Miss Bates’s mock-protest against taking the arm of the young, attractive Frank Churchill (“My dear sir, you are too obliging. Is there nobody you would not rather?—I am not helpless.”) and speak her clear pleasure at being seated next to him at dinner (“Where I sit is of no consequence. Oh, do you recommend this side? ... just as you please.”) emphasizes the flirtation beneath these lines. These speeches would have been played—as their title suggests—loudly, broadly: men mock-flirting with men.
A few decades after the vogue for male actors delivering coquettish lines to Frank Churchill, a spate of Austen-inspired female actors pretended to fall in love with other women on stage. In fact, as I discovered in research for my new book, The Making of Jane Austen, the first known Mr. Darcy to take the stage was a woman. An amateur performance of Pride and Prejudice, put on at Wellesley College in 1899, was mounted with an all-female cast. The script doesn’t appear to have survived, but all seven of the play’s male characters were performed by female students. If a surviving photo is an accurate indicator, each actor approached her romantic part with gusto, including hand holding, shoulder grazing, and neck gazing.
This all-female Pride and Prejudice wasn’t an outlier. Amateur dramatizations of Austen first emerged and proliferated in the early 20th century, and Pride and Prejudice frequently featured women in every role. At the University of Michigan in 1907, the senior girls performed Pride and Prejudice: A Play Founded on Jane Austen’s Novel (1906), by the playwright Mary Keith Medbery MacKaye. By 1910, MacKaye’s play was touted as having been “acted at many universities.” It features 10 men’s and 10 women’s parts, but surviving copies of the book have female actors’ names penciled in the margins of the cast list. (One in my possession shows the male characters were performed by two Alices, a Margaret, and a Mabel.)
In some ways, women playing Austen’s men in this era is predictable. Casting women in men’s parts gained traction in the United States and Europe by the early 20th century; in a turnabout from Shakespeare’s day, when men played women’s parts, fin de siècle Hamlet was often a woman. In this period of fashionable male impersonation, then, an all-female Pride and Prejudice cast may have seemed par for the course. But a signal difference is that these other plays were not romantic comedies with repeated marriage proposals, showcasing both failed and successful love scenes. The unconventionally cast Austen adaptations were thematically suited to heightening queer readings of the novelist’s work.
MacKaye’s Pride and Prejudice offers up a Darcy who is bombastically, stereotypically manly. He swears (“Damn!”) and once cracks a whip in front of Elizabeth. He threatens the absent Lady Catherine with the line, “She shall be set right, I assure you!” It’s an aggressive scene that must have played far differently with a female Darcy, whose violent behavior would have come across as mock-manly, and perhaps even playful, rather than as hyper-masculine intimidation. It seems ripe for reading as a comic subversion of male expectations of female obedience. (The forceful physicality of the scene is fascinating regardless.)
There were touching moments in MacKaye’s Pride and Prejudice, too. In one scene, Elizabeth reaches for Darcy’s hand and pleads, “Take me home, Mr. Darcy! Take me home!” The play ends with Darcy’s rushing toward Elizabeth and folding her in his arms. Again, there’s no saying what actually happened in performance. Even if stage directions were followed precisely, having a woman playing a man holding another woman’s hand, or falling into an embrace, may have been less risqué for a female student actor than the opposite-sex alternative.
Still, many young women at this time would have memorized Austen-inspired lines of dialogue in order to deliver them looking deeply into the eyes of other women. The number of audience members who watched female actors locked in such gazes likely numbered in the thousands. Darcy, filtered as he’s been through the rom-com-industrial-complex, may seem to readers today as an obvious sex object for straight women. But his being played in drag a century ago suggests the potential for other kinds of desire, on stage and in the audience.
Portrayals of Austen’s female characters by men, and male characters by women, weren’t exactly seeking to lock her stories down in the service of heterosexuality. But the queer potential of Austen on stage became unmistakable in 1932 with the New York debut of the first biographical play about the author, Dear Jane. The playwright Eleanor Holmes Hinkley—T. S. Eliot’s first cousin—had written Dear Jane with a female-centric take on Austen’s story. Hinkley’s play imagines the path that led Austen to choose a writing life without marriage, turning down three successive, flawed male suitors who resemble Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. Jane rejects them because they don’t support her writing career, though her sister Cassandra fills that void, in Hinkley’s version.
Dear Jane resembles the contemporary biopics Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) despite antedating them by almost a century. The major difference is that, at the end of Hinkley’s play, a young Jane runs off into the darkness with Cassandra, in a quasi-elopement. When Dear Jane was first performed at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre, the parts of Cassandra and Jane were played, respectively, by the English-born theatrical whiz kid Eva Le Gallienne and her girlfriend, the recently divorced American starlet, Josephine Hutchinson. The two women had already been outed as a couple in the newspapers, and their off-stage relationship prompted snarky comments from Dear Jane’s reviewers. One critic claimed he couldn’t hear Hutchinson delivering the play’s final lines, suggesting he thought she may have said “my queer own pen.” (The line was “quill pen.”)
Taken together, these lesser-known stories suggest that actors and playwrights had opportunities to explore Austen’s work and life beyond the constraints of sexual and gendered conventions before critics thought to do so. But as scholars caught on in the mid-20th century, Austen-inspired pop culture evolved, too. Queering Austen on film was even more direct and active than on the stage. Amy Heckerling’s cult classic Clueless (1995) replaces Emma’s straight, striving clergyman Mr. Elton with Elton, a gay Californian teen. The new movie Before the Fall, described as a “modern gay take” with a “queer spin” on Austen, is set in present-day Virginia and was released on Amazon in June.
Perhaps the queering in Austen adaptations will strike contemporary readers as new because she’s so often seen as the go-to novelist for celebrating marriage between a man and a woman. Although Austen’s own sexuality may come under periodic scrutiny, her fiction has been consistently sold to readers as reinforcing a world where men are men, women are women, and everyone ought to play it straight. But on the page, and especially in performance, Austen’s life, fiction, and legacy have challenged audiences to consider—and appreciate—a broader range of gender identities and relationships for a very long time.
Chester Bennington started as a rock star by saying that he was finished. “I cannot take this anymore / saying everything I’ve said before” went the opening lines to Linkin Park’s first smash, “One Step Closer,” which is among the many, many songs that take on an awful resonance after the news that Bennington has died, in what’s being investigated as suicide, at age 41.
Linkin Park became one of the most popular and most divisive bands of the new millennium because of their genre blending and pop polish, but to listen to that debut single is to remember that they were also differentiated by a core of raw, convincing pain. It almost entirely came from Bennington. He was arguably the purest font of angst—and inarguably one of the most powerful male voices—in mainstream music since 2000.
“He sang like a fucking beast, the same way he sings now,” Linkin Park rapper Mike Shinoda recalled to Kerrang in 2008, describing Bennington’s 1999 audition for Shinoda’s new group that was looking to blend hip-hop and metal. Whether in Linkin Park or earlier bands like Grey Daze, Bennington could scream—really scream, in the way that vicariously makes the listener’s vocal cords hurt. But he also had a balladeer’s smoothness and sense of melody that showed his tastes as a listener. In 2014, he listed his influences on Twitter: “Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Misfits, Fugazi, Minor Threat, The Smiths, Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb, Ministry, x.”
He also listened to a lot of grunge, and Bennington’s death inevitably and unfortunately shall now be linked to those of singers from that movement. Foremost among them is Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden singer who killed himself in May and whose birthday would have been Thursday, the day Bennington’s body was found. Bennington, married and the father of six, released a moving note following Cornell’s death that read in part, “your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that.” Bennington also performed a stint from 2013 to 2015 as vocalist for Stone Temple Pilots, another ’90s rock influence of his whose original singer, Scott Weiland, died in December 2015.
Grunge’s disaffection, though, was more self-indicting than the anguish Bennington aired. His sorrows were those not of the nihilist but of the aggrieved, someone deeply betrayed by an ever-present “you.” Bennington talked openly over the years about being sexually abused by an older male figure during childhood, and he said both his songwriting and his persistent struggles with drugs and alcohol were partly reactions to that trauma. In “One Step Closer,” he cooed and gasped about getting ever-closer to “the edge” because of “everything you say to me.” The true thrill of the song came when his seething finally gave way to him wailing, over and over again, “Shut up when I’m talking to you!”
Linkin Park’s sound has always been omnivorous, and the band deserves more credit than it gets for the way it prophesied the current moment in which rock’s drama and pop sweetness and rap’s swagger seem to combine on more Hot 100 hits than not. While Shinoda and his bandmates worked on projecting attitude and geeky cool, Bennington contributed a lot of said sweetness and even more of said drama. Song after song he seemed to revisit the same wounds, and the impression almost always was of the scrawny sensitive soul finally pushing back after a lifetime of abuse. He was unapologetically a victim—the solace Linkin Park provided, with its techno-futuristic beats and energizing power chords and Shinoda’s stern boasts, was in turning victim into righteous superhero.
The band, experimental from the start, has pushed its sound a few different directions over the years—proggy and aggro on 2014’s The Hunting Party, EDM-adjacent prettiness for this year’s One More Light—and Bennington adapted to all of it. But his point of view didn’t waver much. In 2000, he vented about tormenters making him consider “the edge” and “the end”; in one particularly plaintive 2014 cut, he was, again, contemplating bitter endings with the title “Final Masquerade.” There were hopeful exceptions, though. On 2003’s “Breaking the Habit,” a twitchy and defiantly un-heavy career highlight, he sang of trying to will away self-destruction. And Linkin Park’s most recent album’s title track will be playing a lot in the coming days, no doubt. “Who cares if one more light goes out,” Bennington sang. “Well, I do.”
There’s a ritual that takes place, several times, during each 22-minute episode of the reality-show juggernaut Say Yes to the Dress. A bride-to-be, who will typically arrive at Kleinfeld’s Manhattan wedding emporium with friends and family in tow, will first introduce the group (her “entourage,” the show will call them) to the person who will be her personal attendant throughout her Kleinfeld Experience. The bride will then be spirited away, from the “Bridal Floor” and its effusions of white, to a simple dressing room. There, she and her attendant will get down to business. “How do you want to look,” the consultant will ask her, with cheerful solemnity, “on your wedding day?”
The bride will reply instantly (“classic,” “ethereal,” “edgy,” “like Beyoncé,” “like a princess”), and if she does not—if, indeed, she betrays any uncertainty about her bridal Look and/or Style and/or Philosophy—the attendant will allow a shadow of disapproval to cross her face. This is part of the ritual. After all, in the Kleinfeld cosmos, a Wedding Day is not really a matter of legal pragmatism, or of religious tradition, or even, really, of love; it is an act of determined transformation. It is a day about Dreams—Dreams whose roots have been growing in the bride’s mind and heart ever since, as it goes, she was a little girl. Dreams made manifest in that most quintessentially American of manners: through the purchase of an extremely expensive piece of clothing.
Say Yes to the Dress is capitalizing, in that, on a moment in American life that makes the term “wedding industrial complex” seem at once undeniably accurate and impossibly quaint. While participation in marriage, in the U.S., has been declining steadily over the past 40 years, participation in the parties that celebrate the institution has been expanding—if through no other method than the workings of cultural osmosis. Weddings, these days, are everywhere. Take all those “exclusive” celebrity wedding photos in People. All those punny wedding hashtags (#ForeverYounge, #ToHaveAndToHolton, #OneHaleOfaWedding) punctuating social media feeds. All those whimsical wedding salons that have been added, in recent years, to Anthropologie stores in malls the nation over. All those bridal bootcamps that promise to tone women’s shoulders, arms, and backs to ensure that their wedding Looks will be properly picturesque. All those movies that celebrate the dramas and the delightful absurdities of the nuptial events. And, yes: all those wedding-centered reality shows.
It’s a situation—weddings, dissolved and distributed across pop culture—that in one way simply reflects the obvious: Weddings can be awesome. They’re fun. They’re festive. They’re ever more egalitarian. And they do, as well, that rarest of things: They bring people together, across geographies and generations and, sometimes, classes. (Say Yes to the Dress celebrates that breadth: In casting a diverse array of brides, the show emphasizes the idea that nuptial bliss can be enjoyed by anyone who cares enough to seek it.) That communal sensibility—families and friends joining together, just as the couple does—is a special thing. So special, in fact, that, according to the wedding-info site The Knot, Americans spent an average of $35,329 on their weddings in 2016, not including honeymoons—“an all-time high,” the site notes.
But it’s the products at the periphery of the wedding industry, the TV shows and magazines and Pinterest boards and The Knot itself, that have helped to put another kind of spin on that age-old celebration of newly forged family. Nuptials, in the pop-cultured conception, are not merely parties, but gauzy exercises in self-expression. They are intricate productions of the theater of the self, performed as a one-time show. The American wedding, at this point, makes a promise not just about undying love or enduring companionship, but also about something simpler and more radical: It insists, in an age of uncertainty and anxiety, that Dreams themselves—no matter how whimsical, no matter how unusual, no matter how idiosyncratic—can be, with the proper investment, realized.
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Call it the wedding theatrical complex. And while you can attribute its emergence to many things, one of them must be a single book published 30 years ago, in July of 1987. Martha Stewart Weddings was in one way simply the sequel to Martha Stewart Entertaining, the 1982 tome that helped to establish Stewart as a celebrity, authority, and household name. Weddings tells the stories of more than 40 marriage celebrations—intimate ones, huge ones, fancy ones, relatively casual ones, staged at sites across the country—all produced with Stewart’s signature and immaculate attention to detail. There are Knot-esque narratives about each couple and the events they plan, categorized by venue (The Farmhouse Wedding, The Summer House Wedding, The Yacht Club Wedding, The At-Home Wedding, The Rental Space Wedding, The Crystal Palace Wedding). And there are more instructional sections, as well, offering detailed advice about each component of the journey to “I do”: the Invitation, the Dress, the Bouquet, the Ceremony, the Music, the Decoration. There are suggested wedding menus (the Garden Party in Pink, the High-Style Wedding Lunch, the Formal Winter Pork Dinner). There are recipes (more than 120 of them). There are many, many photographs, rendered—this was a novelty, in 1987—in sumptuous color.
So Weddings found Martha Stewart doing what she is so consummately excellent at doing: She saw where things were heading. She observed the broad evolution of the American wedding, up to that point—the conscientious austerity of the ’30s and ’40s, the careful formality of the ’50s, the counter-cultural backlash of the ’60s and ’70s—and realized that another kind of reaction was stirring. This was the ’80s, after all: the decade of Dynasty and greed is good and Princess Diana’s silk-billowing bridal gown. Weddings, Stewart saw, were about to become similarly puffed up. They’d ride the economic boom times of the later ’80s and the celebrity culture of the ’90s and the social media-driven individualism of the ’00s to evolve into what they have become, generally, today: celebrations not just of two people deciding to merge their assets, but also of celebration itself—its pageantry and its unapologetic excess.
Stewart, in other words, understood that weddings were so marketable specifically because weddings were so meaningful. “Of all the events in the course of a human life,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “a wedding may be the richest—in fact, in folklore, in spirit. By almost any measure—the dreams extended, the energy and funds expended, the planning, the paraphernalia, even the quality of tears shed—it emerges as monumental.”
Martha Stewart Weddings, as an object, is more than 370 pages long and 5.6 pounds in weight. Its pages are stationery-thick. Its photography is opulent. It is, in its own way, monumental. And as a philosophy, Weddings embraces the idea that has animated the 15 seasons of Say Yes to the Dress and its counterparts, across American culture: Weddings takes for granted the profound connection between “wedding” and “identity.” It understands nuptials as singular expressions of selfhood. Stewart, with the help of the writer Elizabeth Hawes, meditates, in Weddings, on the definition of style—a word that “often carries a trendy connotation,” but that is, in fact, derived from the Latin stylus. “Like handwriting,” Stewart notes, style “derives from innate rhythms and expresses something personal and unique.” And style, that profound mingling of the intimate and the transcendent, should be the driving force behind any wedding.
It was—Wedding Portrait in a Convex Mirror—in some ways a radical proposition. By 1987, the shifts of earlier eras, the sexual revolution and the women’s movement in particular, had partially deprived the marriage celebration of the significance it once had: the beginning, at least officially, of the bride’s sexual life. And into the vacuum was coming a new meaning, one informed by contemporary notions of selfhood and celebrity and the moral power of aspiration. In the movie Working Girl, released in 1988, Tess (Melanie Griffith) and Jack (Harrison Ford) crash a comically spectacular wedding—a themed event whose only real cultural reference point seems to be “tropical.” Set in a ballroom, the party features thatched-roof palapas, umbrella-festooned drinks, and servers clad in pith helmets. The bridesmaids, however, wear puffy pink satin; the Latin band plays “Isn’t It Romantic.” There’s a cartoonish—and even grotesque—feel to the whole thing, and yet the event nicely reflects its times: Here is a bride, viewers are meant to understand, who has perfectly understood her own wedding Style. And who has channeled that Style into a production that is the height of something personal and unique.
So Martha Stewart understood 30 years ago what every Kleinfeld consultant and every Kleinfeld-approved bride today takes for granted: that, in the great performance of the modern wedding—the reading of the poems and the saying of the vows and the dancing of the dances—families and friends and those people who have the misfortune to be neither bride nor groom are supporting players at best. There is no “team” in “wedding,” after all, but there is very definitely an “i.” What Stewart grasped, long before others would, was a broader transformation afoot in American culture: a shift toward a kind of restless individualism. The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch published his book The Culture of Narcissism less than a decade before Martha Stewart Weddings; the scholar Robert Putnam published his essay Bowling Alone less than a decade after it. Both works were indictments of what the authors diagnosed as the decline of community-mindedness in America. Both were, in their way, indictments of Style.
But Style is a powerful thing. And it is also, of course, a costly thing. In 1950, the film Father of the Bride focused on the financial pressures borne by the eponymous dad—“bridesmaids and churches,” “automobiles and flowers,” “and heaven knows what!” he complains—but emphasized that the pressures existed in the first place because the Bankses were expected to give their daughter the kind of wedding their friends had given theirs. In 1991, the movie’s remake thoroughly recalibrated those expectations. The wedding whose bill the Bankses foot, its opulence expanded with the help of excitable wedding planners, is defined by idiosyncrasy more than conformity: Swans waddle through the yard, and Annie, the bride, wears sneakers instead of heels. The guiding ethos of the remake, four decades after the original, is not keeping up with the Joneses so much as distinguishing from them.
What both movies’ visions have in common, however, is anxiety over an event—One Perfect Day, the journalist Rebecca Mead summed it up, with no paucity of irony—that seems to have adopted a mind of its own: Everyone involved wants to be practical, in terms of money, in terms of scope. But the wedding will not be denied. This is another thing Martha Stewart anticipated. Weddings acknowledges the necessity of a budget, for example—“the question of budget is an old-fashioned one: that money makes it easier to make free choices, but that money is not the arbiter”—and yet, in the end, downplays it. This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime event. While you can’t put a price on love, in another way, the modern wedding whispers, you very definitely can.
So while Weddings is in some ways an instruction manual, as so many of Stewart’s later guides would be, it is also a kind of declaration—about the moral value of wanting something, about the worth of aspiration itself. The book does not try to reflect the world as it is—the couples here, for the most part, are wealthy enough to throw Yacht Club weddings, and are, in general, varying shades of white—but exists instead in that diaphanous realm of aspiration and accommodated desire. It is a paean to the work that goes into weddings—Stewart herself was connected to many of the events highlighted in it because she had, indeed, catered them—that casts labor itself in the service of a broader vision. It is the Dream, here, that matters. It is the Dream, indeed, toward which all else will bend.
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It is perhaps through such layered meaning-making that Martha Stewart Weddings, as Caitlin Flanagan wrote in a 2001 essay in The Atlantic, “helped to cement [Stewart’s] reputation as one of our most important cultural figures.” It is perhaps because of it, as well, that, in a market crowded with books and blogs and magazines and Pinterest boards, Weddings’s “pride of place in the wedding-wish-book canon,” Flanagan put it, “has been challenged only by the publication of a second volume, The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Weddings.” And it is certainly for that reason that the original book—coming as it did so soon after the 1981 wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles (and, months later, the wedding of Luke and Laura on General Hospital)—captivated the public, helping to fix in the American mind the notion of a high-stakes exhibition of pageantry and money and selfhood. Here comes the bride, who for a day will know what it is to be a celebrity: catered to, beloved, the star of the show. Here comes the woman who, for that One Perfect Day, will be, as Kleinfeld’s website sums it up, “the absolute, stunning, sparkly, and sexy center of attention.”
But with great Dreams, Kleinfeld knows, come great responsibilities. The brides of Say Yes to the Dress may function, collectively, as Campbellian heroines, embarking, with that initial visit to the bridal salon, on their sacred journeys toward self-expression. They may face opposition from an Overbearing Mother, or a Show-Stealing Bridesmaid, or an Eye-Rolling Groom, but their real foils, in the end, are themselves—their own ambivalence, their own lack of desire for the spotlight, their own imprecise answers to the question of how they want to look on her wedding days. Insufficient commitment to the journey: that is the thing that will not be entertained by the otherwise all-accommodating Kleinfeld consultants. Because, ultimately, the attendants here are proxies for the wedding industrial complex itself. They will entertain any Dreams their brides may have for their weddings—fanciful elopements, goth-themed dresses, underwear-revealing bodices, Wiccan ceremonies, polyamorous ceremonies, vows said while scuba-diving. What they will not entertain, however, is the absence of a Dream itself.
In this sense, the consultants are proxies, as well, for Martha Stewart. Stewart understood, long before some ingenious reality-show producers would understand the same, what weddings would become in an age of individualism and excess. She understood the theater that would accompany the nuptial event in an era that finds identity, as an ethos, driving so much in American life. Stewart looked at the direction of families. She looked at the direction of feminism. She looked at the state of American sexual mores and celebrity culture. She surveyed and scanned and then noticed something, glinting, in the distance. Martha Stewart peered out to the horizon line and saw, in that gauzy place where the sky meets the sea, a series of mermaid-cut dresses, encrusted with Swarovski crystals, on brides who were, at least for a day, living out their wildest dreams.
In the early winter of 2006, I was living with my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. We’d recently moved into a beautifully renovated Brooklyn brownstone that we called the “Penthouse” because it was on the top floor of a four-story walk up. Despite this new beginning, our love had grown stale—it felt like we had less and less in common. I preferred to spend an evening at home than go out with him and his friends.
One night I stayed in, curled on the sofa with the cats, and pulled up our cable on-demand menu. The Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen version of Pride and Prejudice caught my eye. I’d read the book years ago, but connected more with the brooding loneliness of Jane Eyre than any of Austen’s wealthy and silly single girls.
I was hooked almost immediately, but the scene that crushed my nearly broken heart happens about 25 minutes in, when the elder Bennet daughters are escorted out of Mr. Bingley’s house after Jane’s illness turns it into an impromptu infirmary. In a discreet, barely noticeable gesture, Darcy sticks out his hand to support Elizabeth as she gets in her family’s carriage. The scene is all giggling girls and polite chaos—then, silence. The camera focuses on the touch, and then, a few moments later, you see the close-up of Darcy extending his own fingers, likely quite thrilled at the forbidden physical contact. On my first, say, 10 viewings, I felt the tingling in my own hands.
At a time when I was rapidly falling out of love, that fleeting moment served as a visceral reminder of the spark of new romance. And just a few months after that breakup, I met the man who would end up being my husband. We were more like Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy, running into each other over the years, but finally—roughly five years after I first watched that electric touch—he kissed me.
This week at The Atlantic we’re marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death with a celebration of her life and legacy. Our cofounder Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been less than enthused about these digital festivities; as Lee Siegel reported in our January 1998 issue:
Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.” All that her characters cared about was “marriageableness.” “Suicide,” the great Transcendentalist proposed, "is more respectable.”
Emerson wasn’t alone in his distaste for Austen. Readers—whether they be other well-known writers, academics, or everyday consumers of literature—have long been divided in their opinions of the author. Some love her. Some hate her. Some hold her up as a literary icon, while others dismiss her as a chick-lit writer who concerned herself too much with marriage and not enough with pressing world affairs. Some admire the gentility and romance of the late-18th-century British society she portrayed, even as others praise her for satirizing and subverting the values of the same society.
Discussing what makes the author feel relevant even now, 200 years after her death, Nicholas Dames writes in our upcoming September 2017 issue:
As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” … in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure.
Put simply, as Siegel observed, “No one, it seems, has ever been neutral or aloof about Jane Austen.”
In our own pages, contributors have expressed a consistently positive opinion of Austen over the past 154 years. Mrs. R.C. Waterston complimented her in our February 1863 issue on her “rare intuition” and “peculiar genius,” while Ferris Greenslet, writing nearly 40 years later, called her “after Sappho the most unquestioned genius of her sex” and praised her wit, her sensibility, and her “chief literary virtue, her unique and never adequately to be praised power of imaginative realization.”
In 1998, Siegel had similarly laudatory words. “No other author,” he wrote,
goes with such casual intimacy as she, for all her delicate soundings of formal social relations, into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling. …
Austen’s style is one of English literature’s marvels. Her repartee is sometimes as dazzling as anything in Sheridan, and is one reason that her perpetual hope of seeing exciting theater was disappointed whenever she went. …
She had a flawless ear for moral counterpoint, for the hidden chords of how things ought to be and really were. She pitched her delicately endangered sentences, her psychology, her dialogue and drama, to some invisible key way at the back of her language, just as Mozart pitched his compositions to a frequency beyond human range, way at the back of his music.
And Dames is just as complimentary of her style, writing:
Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities.
“Austen,” he asserts, “has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.”
But the debate over Austen’s literary prowess has nevertheless cropped up beside this stream of praise in the archives, as our admiring contributors have collected the opinions of other readers, some of whom were recognizable literary figures themselves.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film that refuses to let a single action sequence play out simply. Its director, Luc Besson, has long excelled at set pieces with a twist—think of the backwards car chase in his last feature, Lucy. But for his newest project, he’s painting on a far grander canvas: A tense showdown at an alien bazaar unfolds in two different dimensions that exist in the same space. In a chase scene, the movie’s hero has to blast straight through dozens of walls in a space station to have any hope of catching his quarry. A high-dive rescue mission gets complicated by the presence of aliens fishing for humans with giant poles.
In an era of expensive, paint-by-numbers blockbusters, Besson’s latest, and biggest, film is a day-glo delight, a true original that deserves to be remembered despite—or perhaps partly because of—its various silly excesses. The movie is based on the landmark French comic series Valérian and Laureline, a ’60s pop sci-fi classic about two “spatio-temporal agents” who travel the galaxy together fighting crime. To do this widely beloved work justice, Besson has aimed as high as possible, delivering a $200 million-plus epic that hardly lets a minute go by without lobbing some new bit of visual trickery at the viewer.
Valerian is the rare film I’d actually recommend trying to see in 3-D; the effects, while plentiful, are rendered with gorgeous clarity. Like a lot of Besson’s work, it’ll probably largely be dismissed as a stylish mess upon release, eventually becoming a cult classic one can imagine captivating midnight theater-goers for decades to come. But Valerian is animated by the same humanist impulses that have driven all of Besson’s best movies—from Léon: The Professional to The Fifth Element—and it has much more to offer than just dizzying spectacle.
Valerian opens with a wonderful montage charting the creation of the massive interstellar city of the film’s title, Alpha—a conglomeration of space stations and hundreds of alien races that has slowly grown over the centuries. But the story is also concerned with an unnamed paradise planet, populated by big-eyed, gem-farming aliens, that was destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. That Armageddon event is somehow tied to strange goings-on at Alpha, and it’s up to the space-soldiers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to investigate.
The dastardly plot at the center of it all is straightforward enough. But Besson (who also wrote the script) layers in absurd side stories and complicated pieces of world-building, much of it surely straight from the comics, to keep the film’s hefty 137-minute running time from feeling slack. After the early mission at the multi-dimensional bazaar, both Valerian and Laureline get to indulge in their own solo missions and interact with various wacky supporting characters (the most important of whom is Bubble, a shape-shifting alien played by Rihanna) before finally solving the main puzzle of the doomed beach planet.
The convoluted plotting and manic visuals are easy enough to get on board with, especially if you’re fond of space operas like Star Wars (Valerian especially reminded me of George Lucas’s prequels, except it knows how to have fun) or the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. But, as with those movies, the dialogue is at times overly expositional, and attempts at humor or romance can be remote and clunky—Besson’s skill as a writer has never been his banter, which this film has plenty of, especially when it’s introducing the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline.
But stick with it through its awkward early moments, and Valerian will yield deeper insights into Besson’s overall artistic philosophy. DeHaan’s deadpan work quickly grew on me once I understood the arc he was going for: a hard-bitten soldier becoming more comfortable with disobeying orders in the name of the greater good. I hadn’t bought the hype on Delevingne as a movie star before now—her biggest roles were in the young-adult drama Paper Towns and the train wreck that was Suicide Squad—but she’s magnetic here, perfectly embodying Besson’s conception of heroism (which tends to be more open-hearted than the wise-cracking, aloof version typical of Hollywood movies).
Valerian is the kind of science-fiction film that doesn’t get made enough anymore. It’s unafraid to embrace the expansive potential of its genre, to make each new location, costume, and alien creature feel like the wildest version of itself. Besson’s ambitions remain as limitless as they were in his first go-round at the genre, 20 years ago, and they may doom Valerian to “intriguing curio” status rather than out-of-the-box sensation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Valerian deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, a cinema experience that takes advantage of every moment it has with you.
In November 1861, the poet Julia Ward Howe took the melody of the abolitionist singalong “John Brown’s Body” and added a new set of lyrics meant to inspire the Union to righteous victory. The editors of The Atlantic published those lyrics in February 1862 with the title “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” christening a patriotic standard that would accompany not only the Civil War but also the Civil Rights struggle and America’s wars abroad.
This year, the 30-year-old jazz star Jon Batiste reinterpreted “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to serve as the theme song for The Atlantic’s first podcast, Radio Atlantic, which launches Friday. Composed entirely on a prepared piano—that is, one with items placed in or on its strings to create different sounds—his enigmatic new version blends influences from around the world. (You can watch Batiste in the studio here and hear the full version of the song on Radio Atlantic.)
I spoke with Batiste on Wednesday about some of the thinking that went into overhauling such a familiar song. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: This is a patriotic song, and we’re in a moment when people are arguing over what patriotism means. Did that factor in to your reinterpretation?
Jon Batiste: I think about patriotism as a way for us to foster camaraderie—but not at the exclusion of anyone else. There’s a line there, and that line is starting to get a little blurred in these times that we live in. Our brand of patriotism is one that’s, at its best, welcoming.
If you listen, it’s fairly explicit that I wasn’t trying to do the traditional American version of the song. There are a lot of influences from indigenous folk music around the world: Indian music, African music, early blues and folk, which is what a lot of American music is based on. It’s a very globalized version of the song, and that to me is a picture of what the world is becoming.
Kornhaber: I definitely hear that in this version. I also hear a different emotion than the original. It’s more mysterious and unsettled.
Batiste: It has a bittersweet emotion. The ethos of the song, to me, in 2017, is much different than 1862. I’m thinking about what we’re going through in the country right now, and what we’ve done with the mythology that we were given. When you think about those things, it’s not a happy journey, it’s not a journey that hasn’t had its struggles. Arguably we have regressed.
Putting that pain and struggle in the arrangement was really important. It was almost subconscious, because when you think about the song, you go there.
Kornhaber: The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” has always been a war song. Is this version a war song?
Batiste: Yes. If you think about the history of our people and if you think about how many wars have created great music, the “Battle Hymn” is almost at the beginning of that tradition.
Kornhaber: How so?
Batiste: There’s always a great soundtrack to a terrible situation, and that’s how our culture continues to grow. If you go back to African American slavery, there are the folk songs and the work songs and the negro spirituals and the blues, which gave us jazz. You think about Vietnam, and you think about all of the rock and roll: Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Something about struggle pulls this creative expression out of us.
Kornhaber: Part of what made the original such an effective march song was not only the percussion but the way the melody was rigid-feeling, lockstep. You’ve done a really interesting thing and kind of unchained the melody from the rhythm. What was behind that decision?
Batiste: There are different types of marches, and a drone is one of them. So I put some duct tape on some of the lower piano strings to create the sound of the drum, and then on some of the lower strings I tried to create the sound of a Gregorian chant, someone humming: hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm.
To me, those two things together create a really pensive sound. The melody just doesn’t fit as well over something so pensive when it’s played straight. It has to be played almost as if it’s being improvised in the moment.
Kornhaber: What other elements from the original composition did you want to retain or reference?
Batiste: That march feel. It’s not a typical march that a band would play in 1862; it’s more a mix of different forms of drum circles, like the New Orleans drum circle or the African drum circle.
Also, with the idea of playing it on piano, it’s connected to the original in that there’s nothing electronic, it’s all acoustic. But the piano’s never found in a march. So in that way it’s not connected. (Laughs.)
I tried to put an element of the blues in there because it’s not in the original, [which] feels more like a hymn. When you think about the connection of the hymn with the blues, they’re one and the same—one is almost a secular version of the other.
Kornhaber: The story of the version of the song that The Atlantic published in 1862 is that Julia Ward Howe heard “John Brown’s Body,” went back to her hotel, and supposedly in a trance-like state saw new lyrics, as if from God. Does that at all compare with experiences you’ve had creating music?
Batiste: Oh, absolutely. I believe it all comes from God. When I think about the music that I play—in fact, I don’t think about it. I try to let my subconscious mind take over. And after the fact I’ll listen and see what’s there and analyze it, almost like writing an outline after you’ve written a paper. I do believe that it’s from the grace of the unseen.
Kornhaber: What other versions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” do you find interesting?
Batiste: It’s actually something that I listened to as a kid that really was a big influence. Oscar Peterson did a version of “John Brown’s Body,” but it was a jazz version. I listened to that hundreds of times as a kid when I was learning how to play. I loved the melody.
Kornhaber: How would you or someone else go about creating something that could become a “Battle Hymn” of today? Not a cover but a new patriotic standard.
Batiste: You have to write with the intention of addressing a dire situation in the culture. But even if you do address racism or sexism or any of these things, you still can’t guarantee it’ll be a standard. That’s one of those things that’s preordained—you can’t really say “I’m going to do this.” The only way is to continue to address the culture with your output, and at some point, maybe, it’ll become a standard.
All six of Jane Austen’s novels end with weddings. On the final page of Northanger Abbey, readers are informed that “Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled.” Sense and Sensibility concludes with a twofer: Elinor and Edward are married “in Barton church early in the autumn,” and Marianne is “placed in a new home” with Colonel Brandon. Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet gets “rid of her two most deserving daughters” on the same day. Mansfield Park ends with Fanny and Edmund married, and their happiness “as secure as earthly happiness can be.” In Emma, the titular character and Mr. Knightley are wed with “no taste for finery or parade,” but with “perfect happiness” in their union. Anne Elliot, “tenderness itself,” is married to Captain Wentworth in the last chapter of Persuasion, with only the prospect of war casting a shadow over her contentment.
The wide-ranging influence of Austen’s marriage plots is hard to quantify. Nor is it entirely her fault. When Carrie marries Mr. Big at the end of Sex and the City, not with a bang but a City Hall whimper, the “happily-ever-after” conclusion is as much a nod to the conventions of fairy tales (the shoe fits) as it is to Austen’s satirical romances. And yet there are few other authors who’ve so reliably concluded stories about women with accounts of their marriages. Austen’s weddings mark a natural endpoint, offering finite resolution (marriage in 19th-century England was almost entirely irreversible) and domestic and financial security for her heroines. They also set a standard for romantic comedies that’s been impossibly pervasive: Women’s stories end, definitively, with marriage.
For me at least, this has long been a source of some irritation. Marriage plots, satisfying as they are, only offer a tiny window into a woman’s life, and they imply that getting married is easily the most significant thing she will ever do. They zero in on the “before” at the expense of the “after.” (Fan fiction alone will testify to the rampant curiosity about the state of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, and not just in the bedroom.) They also lead to culture focusing predominantly on younger women. Even in Austen’s work, the scholar Judith Lowder Newton has written, “marriage demands resignation even as it prompts rejoicing, initiates new life while it confirms a flickering suspicion that the best is over.”
Austen’s six novels achieved varying commercial success throughout her life, but their impact on storytelling in Western culture has been profound. Every time a rom-com ends with an engagement, or a wedding, or even a counterintuitive promise to be unmarried to someone for the rest of their life (Four Weddings and a Funeral), their influence feels palpable. Loving Austen unequivocally, then, means coming to terms with the paradox at the heart of her work: No one did more to challenge the conventions and strictures of marriage for women in the 19th century, while simultaneously enshrining it as the ultimate happy ending for her worthy, intelligent, and independent characters.
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Jane Austen was born in 1775, toward the end of the 18th century, a period that saw the forceful emergence of an English middle class. Men who hadn’t inherited land could seek prosperity as businessmen or clergymen, or as officers in the army and navy (Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, returns a wealthy man from the Napoleonic Wars thanks to money he earned by capturing enemy ships). But the flip side of a shifting economy, as the historian Kirstin Olsen notes, was “the gradual disappearance of respectable work for middle-class women.” Women were barred from becoming lawyers, doctors, politicians, or judges, which left them, Olsen writes, “with not occupations but hobbies: music, drawing, needlework, and artistic or social patronage.”
Austen’s sense of frustration about this enforced and unequal uselessness is detectable even in her earlier works. Sense and Sensibility, which she started working on before 1796, begins with three daughters plunged into poverty when their father dies and their brother inherits the family estate. At the time, the only means women had of bettering themselves was marriage. Austen’s novels follow the structural model of romances and fairy tales, where circumstances and complications keep a couple from their inevitable union. But they also consistently refer to the economic realities of marriage for women, which none of her characters can afford to ignore. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen wryly introduces Mr. Darcy by writing that “he soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand a year.”
This tension between naively interpreting marriage as a love match and cynically calculating its potential profits is embodied in Pride and Prejudice by two very different characters. Lydia Bennet pursues men thoughtlessly and wantonly, without regard to their economic situation or their potential as providers. Charlotte Lucas, by contrast, marries Mr. Collins, a buffoon, purely for financial security, horrifying her friend Elizabeth in the process. “Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony,” Austen writes of Charlotte, “marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”
Elizabeth, by contrast to both Charlotte and Lydia, is Austen’s attempt to reconcile two different imperatives—to prove that marriage can be both a true love match between two compatible people and a means of significant economic improvement for women. Austen, the scholar Karen Newman writes, “exposes the fundamental discrepancy in her society between its avowed ideology of love and its implicit economic motivation.” The very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is a wink; a statement that single men in possession of good fortunes must be in want of a wife, when all of Austen’s readers know the opposite to be true—single women with no fortune or means to speak of are very much in need of husbands. As Henry Tilney, Catherine’s love interest, states in Northanger Abbey, “Man has the advantage of choice; woman only the power of refusal.”
This reality makes marriage not just an objective but a business that otherwise unoccupied women can devote significant time to. The first third of Pride and Prejudice, Lowder Newton notes, “consists of very little but women talking or thinking or scheming about men.” In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings, an independently wealthy woman whose daughters are married, devotes herself to making matches for other young women in a kind of self-appointed act of community service. In Emma, Emma Woodhouse is a rich young woman who has no need to get married, but she also takes to matchmaking with enthusiastic and misguided gusto, causing chaos with her lack of regard to the realities of social classes.
The reason why Austen, who never married, leads all her characters to the altar in concluding their stories is relatively simple. Narrative conventions in comedy require happy endings. Austen obeyed the rigid strictures of the marriage plot, but she also subversively forced her readers to see the awkward reality of marriage for women. Some critics argue that she doesn’t go far enough in challenging it as an institution: In Pride and Prejudice, Lowder Newton argues, “Elizabeth’s … untraditional power is rewarded not with some different life but with woman’s traditional life, with love and marriage.” Others, like William H. Magee, counter that Austen reworked the marriage plot to suit her own agenda. “By doing so,” he writes, “she made the convention a vital feature of her own art and developed it into a criticism of the life allotted by her society to young women of the times.”
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Two hundred years after her death, Austen’s marriage plots remain very much a part of the cultural framework. “Ever since the days of Jane Austen,” Koa Beck wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, “pop-culture consumers have been drawn to stories about female protagonists who find ‘happily ever after’ in marriage and motherhood.” The thriving genre of wedding movies, rather than exposing the contradictions at the heart of the institution of marriage, mocks the gargantuan business of planning a wedding, exposed in Bride Wars, and 27 Dresses, and The Wedding Planner, and The Wedding Singer. Austen would surely approve.
But she might also question why so many works of popular culture haven’t done more to expand the boundaries of telling stories about women’s lives. Worldwide, the highest-grossing film of 2017 so far is Beauty and the Beast, an adaptation of a fairy tale written to prepare young French girls for arranged marriages. As a novelist, Austen was keenly attuned to culture’s powers of persuasion. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is almost brought to disaster by all the Gothic novels she reads, which lead her to interpret ordinary events as sensational and supernatural.
For me, making peace with Austen’s marriage plots, and the many, many imitators they sparked, means considering the fact that she overestimated her audience. She used the rituals of romantic comedy to expose what marriage really meant for women who had no other means of economic improvement, hoping that we’d see the injustice of it. She gave her heroines a kind of power and agency that she herself lacked. “When Austen allows Elizabeth to express critical attitudes,” Lowder Newton writes, “to act upon them without penalty, when she endows Elizabeth with the power to alter her lot, Austen is moving against traditional notions of feminine behavior and feminine fate.”
What contemporary culture took from her novels, though, is that stories about complex, intriguing women should end in marriage, however improbably. It’s the moral of The Philadelphia Story, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and While You Were Sleeping, and The Princess Diaries 2. Clueless, an adaptation of Emma, nods to the rule by wrapping up with a wedding fakeout—it isn’t Cher who’s getting married, but her homely teacher Miss Geist. Concluding with a wedding implies that all involved live happily ever after, something even Austen knew was unlikely. Her ending to Mansfield Park, in which the happiness of Fanny and Edmund is “as secure as earthly happiness can be,” includes an ironic tip of the hat to readers who know by experience that earthly happiness is rarely as reliable as storytellers would have it.
On the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen is still everywhere, often where one least expects to find her. Most of her devotees will have their own story; mine occurred in a Manhattan courthouse, with its stale-coffee smell and atmosphere of anxious boredom, in the midst of jury selection for a criminal trial involving a double homicide. Upon learning that I taught British literature, the defendant’s attorney—a woman who spoke with intimidating speed and streetwise bluntness—skipped the usual questions (how much did I trust police testimony, had I ever been a victim of a violent crime) and asked instead whether I taught Jane Austen. Puzzled by her indirection, I answered yes. A theatrical flash of disgust crossed her face: I was, evidently, one of those people. At which point the presiding judge interrupted to say: “Careful, counsel. Some of us here like Jane Austen.”
As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” But in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure. The disagreement has been amplified as her fame has grown, and her fame may never have been greater. This year sees her unveiling by the Bank of England on a new £10 note, replacing Charles Darwin (and before him, Charles Dickens); she is the first female writer to be so honored. Meanwhile, the scholar Nicole Wright’s revelation that Austen was appearing as an avatar of sexual propriety and racial purity on white-supremacist websites made national news on both sides of the Atlantic. A few years back, her 235th birthday was commemorated with the honor of our times, a Google doodle. The wave of film adaptations that began in the 1990s may have receded, but it left in its wake a truth as peculiar as it seems to be, well, universally acknowledged: Austen has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.
The Shakespeare-Austen comparison is in fact an old one—first mooted by the academic and theologian Richard Whately, in 1821, and echoed later by Tennyson and Kipling—yet it’s inexact. Iconic as she’s become, the reasons for her status often stir up zealous dispute. Is Austen the purveyor of comforting fantasies of gentility and propriety, the nostalgist’s favorite? Or is she the female rebel, the mocking modern spirit, the writer whose wit skewers any misguided or—usually male—pompous way of reading her? (For her supremacist fans, Elizabeth Bennet would have a retort at the ready: “There are such people, but I hope I am not one of them.”) Any hint of taking Austen out of her Regency bubble brings attacks. When the literary theorist Eve Sedgwick delivered a talk in 1989 called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” some male social critics brandished the popular term politically correct to denounce Sedgwick and her profession. Six years later, when Terry Castle suggested a homoerotic dimension to the closeness between Austen and her sister, Cassandra, the letters page of the London Review of Books erupted. In other precincts, business gurus can be found online touting “what Jane Austen can teach us about risk management.” Not only is my Austen unlikely to be yours; it seems that anyone’s Austen is very likely to be hostile to everyone else’s.
Such is the nature of possessive love. Austen’s proudly defensive comment about her Emma—“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”—has become the signature attitude of her critics, who tend to be obsessed with protecting Austen from her admirers and enumerating the bad reasons to like her. Both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, when they reviewed the famous 1923 R. W. Chapman edition of her novels, were able to admit to their admiration only after taking swipes at a different kind of fan. “Like all regular churchgoers,” Forster said of the usual Austen reader, “he scarcely notices what is being said.” For her part, Woolf smirked at the notion of “25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.” Club, meet the members who don’t want to join.
Their asperity suggests a question, one that grows more apparent, and more profound, as we enter the third century After Austen: How modern is Austen—and are we still modern in the same way? Is it a fantasy of escape that draws readers to her fables of courtship among the precariously genteel, or is it the pleasure of recognition, the sense that she is describing our world? Other classics either have become antiques in need of explanation, or are obviously in a world—a world of technology and money and big, alien institutions—that feels familiar. Austen, with her 18th-century diction, village settings, and archaic social codes that somehow survive all manner of contemporary avatars and retellings, is strangely both.
Two centuries is a long time to be contemporary, long enough for us to wonder what exactly keeps her so. It’s the oldest and most perplexing of her critical challenges, and the question her close readers are least able to resist pondering. In an article left unpublished at his death in 1975—the bicentenary of Austen’s birth—the critic Lionel Trilling wondered, with considerable suspicion, why students still turned out in droves for classes devoted to her. His answer was their yearning to escape their modernity: Austen, he observed, is “congenial to the modern person who feels himself ill-accommodated by his own time.” What Trilling didn’t mention is that slightly more than two decades earlier, he had famously argued the opposite: that her novels “are, in essential ways, of our modern time.” Austen has that trick of slipping out of focus, of seeming to be vanishing into the historical background even as she’s coming closer to us. That felt like a problem in the age of cold war, and the puzzle of her relevance is unavoidable in this doom-haunted, angry, febrile moment 200 years after her death: Do we read Austen to flee modernity, or to see it clearly? Why would we need to do either?
There are a few ways to address this puzzle, and in the interval between Austen bicentenaries, two ways in particular have become influential among scholars who make Austen their subject. The first would have us explore the context of Austen’s own moment, and read her as her contemporaries might have—to de-prettify her novels and show her immersion in the world, with all its political messiness and social friction. The second takes the prettifications at face value and asks how they happened. Its interest is in the history of Austen after Austen, in how she’s been understood, manipulated, adapted to speak to different times. Both are historical endeavors, but one pulls us back to Austen while the other pulls Austen toward us; the former tends toward metaphors of archeology or espionage—unearthing, decoding, uncovering—while the latter is a more garrulous activity, interested in unexpected meetings and expanding connections.
This bicentenary gives us readable examples of each. Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical pulls no punches in its insistence that Austen’s readers have forgotten, or don’t know, the conditions that gave the novels their shape and significance: property and inheritance laws that kept women in perpetual dependence on male relations; enclosure acts that remade, and privatized, the British landscape; economic dependence on commodities produced by slave labor in Britain’s colonies; and, above all, the militarized and paranoid environment in Britain after the French Revolution, with its suspension of habeas corpus, its policing of political expression, its quartering of troops on potentially restive subjects. Taken as a whole, these conditions made Austen, in Kelly’s account, a revolutionary like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft. But she was a revolutionary writing in code, for readers who would know “how to read between the lines, how to mine her books for meaning, just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write,” according to Kelly, who teaches at Oxford. “Jane’s novels were produced in a state that was, essentially, totalitarian.”
This analysis is meant to be bracing. It derives from a diverse tradition of scholarship, by critics such as Marilyn Butler and Claudia L. Johnson, that attempts to place Austen in the politics of her day. It is also riven by a paradox. The closer Kelly gets to the historical particularities of Austen’s time, the more she reaches for anachronistic comparisons to a time nearer to ours. The idea of Austen writing in a “totalitarian” regime, producing something like samizdat, is deliberately provocative, but it’s a provocation that clouds historical precision even as it tries to make vivid her historical moment. Impatient with 200 years of sentimentalizing—some of it, Kelly argues, intentional, on the part of Austen’s family—Kelly gives us what turns out to be a distinctively modern Austen, someone who is always on the right historical side (that is to say, ours), with an unerring moral compass that flatters our sensibilities. Behind a spoonful of sugar, Austen wants us to see the violence of the colonial plantation, abetted by Anglican apologists. Behind the joining of estates in Emma, Austen wants us to see the exclusion of itinerant populations from sustenance. Behind the flirtatious soldiers quartered in Meryton in Pride and Prejudice, Austen wants us to hear the fall of the guillotine.
To get to this Austen, Kelly takes the liberty of imagining. Each chapter starts with a fantasia based on a surviving letter of Austen’s, in which “Jane” (Kelly’s preferred name, to suggest the then-unknown young woman rather than the canonical author) reacts with moral sensitivity to a small scene. Writing on Northanger Abbey, Kelly begins by evoking the disgust a 24-year-old Jane would have felt at witnessing the violent morning sickness of her sister-in-law Elizabeth, newly pregnant almost immediately after the birth of her first child. The scene is plausible and vivid; it leads to an illuminating discussion of the perils of 18th- and early-19th-century obstetrics, and the shadow of female mortality hovering over sex in Austen’s time. It is helpful to remember that beyond the happy couplings of Austen’s endings there lurked the lying-in, the dangerous ravages of delivery, the fears of postpartum complications and infection.
Helpful because, as Kelly knows, concerns like the ones she invokes—the blithe male brutality of sex itself, the greed of landowners dispossessing their localities of the commons, the bayonets glinting on the rifles carried by the visiting militia—are actually marginal in Austen, silenced by the novels’ decorum. To see them requires a kind of paranoid gaze, looking for clues and hidden signs, and a willingness to imagine Austen as a dissident as much as a novelist. To be sure, the text does send out some signals. Kelly is particularly deft with names: the Frenchness of Darcy—a thinly disguised D’Arcy—with its tang of aristocrats facing bloody revolution; the metallic surnames of Sense and Sensibility (Steele, Ferrars) evoking the clink of money; the recurrence of famous names from the history of abolition (Mansfield, Norris) in Mansfield Park.
There is a satisfaction in conceiving oneself to be in possession of the codebook. Yet Austen’s own plots—with their caddish suitors hiding unsuitable pasts, covert engagements that give rise to social chaos, ciphers and riddles that lead to misunderstanding—figure secrecy as a moral flaw, which might give a sleuthing critic pause. (“Oh!” says Emma, “if you knew how much I love every thing that is decided and open!”) There is also, finally, a letdown in learning that the encoded message is actually by now accepted wisdom: against money-worship, against the trafficking of women, against exploitation. Radical once, perhaps, but commonsense now; gritty and serious, but disappointingly familiar.
Austen’s appeal has always, instead, been a matter of surfaces, of a style to be admired rather than of a cipher to be cracked. Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities. (“You must learn some of my philosophy,” Elizabeth Bennet tells Darcy: “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”) Such deft playfulness gets eclipsed in reading these surfaces as a layer to be dug under for a more subversive depth. “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know,” Kelly insists. Kelly may depict a politically and ethically congenial Austen, but forgetting the Austen we know turns out to mean forgetting the allure of an art that seems more mysterious than any particular critique it might be hiding.
Devoney Looser, on the other hand, wants to write the forgotten history of that allure. The Making of Jane Austen is more entertaining than any reception history has a right to be, simply because of the oddities that Looser, an English professor at Arizona State University, restores to view. Divided into four overlooked cultural zones where Austen was reimagined in the 19th and 20th centuries—illustrations; theatrical and early film adaptations; political appropriations; and school texts—her book relishes its most piquant juxtapositions. Looser highlights the Italian-born Rosina Filippi, whose 1895 adaptation of Austen’s dialogues for amateur theatricals stressed the feisty independence of her heroines. She exhibits a Marathi-language version of Pride and Prejudice, published in 1913, written in the hopes that India might one day adopt British Regency social codes. She pauses over the 1932 stage play Dear Jane, about Austen’s life, whose co-stars Eva Le Gallienne (as Cassandra Austen) and Josephine Hutchinson (as Jane) were known to be offstage lovers. In each case, as Looser shows, Austen is slow to enter a different medium, but once introduced into it, she quickly dominates.
As a corrective to so much existing work on Austen’s reception, which has featured the opinions of critics and writers, this is brilliant stuff. Turning to Trilling’s austere, regretful 1975 essay, Looser reads it as a typical example of a literary scholar bewildered by a popularity whose impetus derives from outside the purely literary. What if Trilling had realized that his students had likely been raised on school viewings and televised reruns of the Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice? Compared with Trilling’s airless pondering, Looser’s sensitivity to changes in the cultural atmosphere around Austen is refreshing.
The point is that a school of Austen criticism willfully ignorant of her many cultural manifestations is likely to be, to use a phrase of Emma’s, solemn nonsense. But what do those manifestations prove about Austen? Here Looser is as wisely reticent as Austen herself. They prove no one thing, Looser admits, either aesthetically or politically. Two centuries of Austen’s legacy reveal her to be “all over the political map”: She is brandished as an icon on suffragette banners in 1908, and used at the same time as a badge of affiliation by male club members anxious to preserve gendered social barriers. In Looser’s history, she is potentially anything to anyone. Aesthetically, she can look neoclassical or romantic, gentle or acerbic. Like a canny or lucky organism, Austen has thrived in any number of ecological niches, and Looser refuses to judge the extent to which those niches have done violence to her novels in order to make them fit. Far more generous and circumspect in its account than Kelly’s, Looser’s book might inspire us, like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price when struck by the growth of a hedgerow, simply to wonder at change and adaptation itself: “How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!”
Where do these books leave us? One critic reads the novels; one reads anything but. One presents a single, but secret, Austen, rooted in the rough soil of her time; one gives us a volatile, protean Austen, amenable to any condition or climate. As histories of Austen they could not be more different, but neither, it seems, can address the question of Austen’s perennial and stubbornly perplexing appeal: What is it about her art that still inspires argument, retelling, adulation, commercialization, when other big worthies of the past slowly vanish? Is there something like an Austen Effect, obvious and yet also obscure, long-lasting and yet adaptable to new media and historical situations, that speaks to our sense of our modernity? Where might we look to find it?
Another of this year’s Austen books suggests an answer: the new Oxford World’s Classics Teenage Writings, a collection of three notebooks of her adolescent writings, co-edited by Kathryn Sutherland, one of a handful of true experts in Austen’s manuscripts. Novel-writing is an adult-only game, rarely amenable to youthful prodigies like an Ingres, a Mozart, or a Keats. But if anyone in the form’s history comes close, it is Austen. From the age of 11 she showed a fantastically precocious understanding of the novel’s usual rules, because already by then she was parodying them. Her earliest juvenilia are insouciant send-ups, each of a slightly different aspect of the fictional form of her time. Various kinds of prose technique (long, descriptive passages, novels in letters) and assorted kinds of stories (foundling plots, mystery plots, tales of star-crossed lovers) are rendered ridiculous in what is already her recognizably exact voice. On the period’s stereotypically virtuous suffering heroines, she offers this, likely written in her early teens:
Beloved by Lady Harcourt, adored by Sir George & admired by all the world, she lived in a continued course of uninterrupted Happiness, till she had attained her eighteenth year, when happening one day to be detected in stealing a bank-note of 50£, she was turned out of doors by her inhuman Benefactors.
Or this, possibly written as early as age 11, on the cousin-lovers familiar from sentimental fiction:
They were exceedingly handsome and so much alike, that it was not every one who knew them apart.—Nay even their most intimate freinds [sic] had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose & the difference of the complexion.
Laugh lines like these exploit the comedy of precision, a riposte to the windy generalities of fictional clichés; and from the beginning virtually everything about fiction for Austen was a cliché, or a genre, a kind of unconscious expectation that she could expose or pierce. The insight and skill are remarkable, but even more so is the absence of any self-revelation. Austen seems to have had none of the usual adolescent impulse toward autobiography. Instead she displays a preternatural self-possession. Nothing is too giddy, or too self-important; no dreaminess or yearning or complaint intrudes. What personality makes itself felt is composed of intellectual delight—the pleasure of the mind’s exertion, directed toward a family audience.
In her published novels—she wrote a first draft of Pride and Prejudice in her early 20s, and her last novel, Persuasion, as she turned 40 (a year before she died)—that avoidance of the personal was refined into a method capable of more than parody. It is a recurrent problem for biographical criticism of Austen’s novels that Jane Austen, the unmarried woman who spent much of her adulthood living on the not particularly lavish charity or hospitality of male relations, is nowhere present in them. You will find no wittily sardonic yet sympathetic aunts who happen to write fiction in the interstices of the day’s other duties, no talented and unmarried daughters of deceased clergymen negotiating with London publishers from a Hampshire cottage. Instead, her pages present young women destined, with various degrees of initial willingness, for the marriages they eventually deserve.
Which is to say that the exuberance of her juvenile parodies, a way of turning the self’s delight in its own powers outward, is in the novels given to Austen’s extraordinarily vibrant protagonists. They share nothing of Austen but their enjoyment of their own powers, particularly their intellectual powers. They are, to use a word of Austen’s, spirited. That has always been their appeal. Spiritedness has its many moods, but it is never just physical, nor is it resentful, brooding, interiorized. It is vibrant, quick, sensitive, willing to collide with the world yet also self-sufficient. Take Elizabeth Bennet, when she overhears Darcy telling Bingley that she is “not handsome enough to tempt me”:
Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him. She told the story however with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.
Elizabeth, the young parodist. No wonder that Darcy later admits to first admiring her for “the liveliness of your mind,” or that we see his sister, Georgiana, feeling “an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother.”
The pleasure that spiritedness provides, as everyone who reads Austen discovers, tends to feel self-evident; her spirited characters stand out because they enchant us. But all pleasures have their politics, even the seemingly personal pleasure of watching her lively heroines assert themselves. There is something pagan about spiritedness as a virtue; it is the usual translation of the Greek term thumos, which for Aristotle meant the energetic defense of one’s personal dignity—quick to feel injury, quick to respond, courageous about one’s principles, active in the expression of one’s self-respect. (It is no coincidence that many of Austen’s most devoted readers, such as Gilbert Ryle and Alasdair MacIntyre, have been philosophers steeped in Greek thought.) Even Austen’s less witty protagonists, like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, carry a sense of self-sufficiency and a devotion to their self-conception that make them more than just models of rectitude. As for Elizabeth and Emma, they exude a kind of self-generated joy. Flawed and blinkered, their spiritedness is still a form of personal flourishing—an energetic defense of the very idea of having a self. It qualifies them for that most clichéd, and yet most profound, of Austen’s words: happiness.
This is in fact the ethic, painted in many different period-appropriate colors, that saturates the examples of Austen adaptation in Looser’s book, from the declamations of late-19th-century elocution handbooks to the many Elizabeths of stage and screen. But it is also crucially, as Kelly would no doubt insist, embedded in the history of Austen’s own moment. Spiritedness is a way of understanding oneself as having rights. It experiences those rights as a joy, as a sense of blossoming, of freedom; but also as something often in need of quickly roused defense. It is the style of the revolutions—American, French—encroaching on Austen’s Britain, put in the mouths of intelligent young women who know their own worth. “I am only resolved to act in that manner,” Elizabeth tells her aristocratic antagonist Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
Elizabeth’s is a declaration of rights; she demands the pursuit of happiness. The echoes of famous documents of the late 18th century are there, but harmonized by a personal style one might love and not just admire: The spirited self, joyous even in the act of refusal, is a pleasure to watch in action. The radical formal twist in Austen, however, is that these spirited characters are monitored with steely objectivity, inside and out, by her impersonal omniscient voice, one that never explicitly judges but that still exposes their misapprehensions and solipsisms. Someone is always watching, and that someone is the Austen voice itself, detached from any merely personal Jane Austen. There is the characters’ self-assertion, brilliant and enjoyable; and there is observation and implied assessment, keeping that self-assertion balanced with an objective world of shared values.
No one has made spiritedness more compelling, and no one has taken more care to hedge it with such perfect control. At different historical moments, one side or the other of that equation has been emphasized—sometimes the ironic wit keeping characters under surveillance, sometimes the spirited relish with which those characters defend their rights—but the equipoise has demonstrated remarkable durability. The balance between self and society is the core dream of a liberal world: a place where individuals might be both sufficient unto themselves and possessed of rights accordingly, but also bound to one another in a pact of mutual correction. Call it civil society, as both a joy and a duty. Austen is, as Kelly would put it, a fantasist about her moment—but that fantasy is also still ours.
For how much longer? Is it possible to imagine a world that no longer finds such a fantasy gratifying or necessary, a world that no longer reads and reimagines Jane Austen? If and when that time arrives, we will know that her comic ideal, of spirited, rights-holding individuals living in social concord, no longer seems appealing, or viable, and that her idea of what it means to be an individual is no longer recognizable. In this 200th year After Austen, there are plenty of signs, none of them a pleasure to consider, that such a day may not be far off. For the moment, we’re left in relation to Austen where Mr. Knightley started with Emma, looking on anxiously and thinking: “I wonder what will become of her!”
The most radical element of Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera The Fifth Element is not the absurdly opulent future-costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. It isn’t the bizarre Southern twang of the Hitler haircut-sporting villain Zorg (Gary Oldman), nor is it Chris Tucker’s performance as an intergalactic sex symbol who hosts a radio show. It’s that Bruce Willis cries at the opera. In budget, in scale, and in casting, The Fifth Element feels like any other big Hollywood sci-fi movie, featuring popular English-speaking actors running around a high-concept world, complete with lavish sets and CGI effects. But not many blockbusters would let its male star weep at a musical performance.
That set piece comes in the middle of the film as Willis’s character, Korben Dallas, a gun-wielding space cowboy with spiked, peroxide-blonde hair, takes in a show by the blue alien singer Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn). Besson’s film has, up until now, been a relentless blitz of action, as Korben follows the mysterious Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) across the galaxy to help retrieve mystical stones that will help her save the world from a great, encroaching evil. But for a second, the movie grinds to a halt, letting Korben take in the extraterrestrial songstress’s solo with tears in his eyes.
Diva Plavalaguna is one of The Fifth Element’s many MacGuffins—it turns out she has the stones in her possession, and she hands them over to Korben after a wild shootout in the venue. But the genius of her scene is that her voice prompts a genuine emotional change in the film’s maverick male protagonist, nudging him from being a hard-edged renegade into something much more openhearted. This internal shift is a bigger deal than any of The Fifth Element’s action sequences—a dramatic device that helps distinguish Besson from his genre-director peers, and that resurfaces in his new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Besson takes an all-American cowboy hero, a trope as old as the Flash Gordon sci-fi films he’s aping, and uses not violence, but art, to help teach Korben a larger lesson about the importance of other people in his life.
Valerian, opening in theaters this week, is already drawing the same kind of polarized reaction The Fifth Element got 20 years ago, with critics praising its visual boldness while expressing, at best, a little confusion about its dialogue and storytelling choices. Besson, the French director who pioneered the stylish cinema du look of France’s 1980s, likes to use grand imagery to present his often simplistic narratives. But beneath the surface, The Fifth Element is a highly underrated piece of subversive Hollywood cinema.
Stylishness aside, The Fifth Element does have a plot of sorts: Korben is on a quest to unite the four “elements” (fire, earth, water, and air) with a fifth, Leeloo—a humanoid woman possessed of an inherent goodness that she can use to fight an invading evil. But the film’s ultimate message is that the fifth element is really love: Near the end, it turns out that Korben’s declaration of his love for Leeloo, and hers for him, allows her to activate her celestial powers in the movie’s climax. This hopelessly sentimental reveal isn’t an empty one, though; these characters don’t just fall in love because that’s what happens at the end of movies. Their union is the culmination of the transformation distilled in that opera scene, where Korben realizes there’s more to life than pulling off the next mission.
The couple’s meet-cute at the beginning of The Fifth Element sees Leeloo crashing into Korben’s flying cab. When they first encounter each other, Korben is a familiar Han Solo type—a military washout and a habitual rule-breaker who’s so independent-minded that he lives in a cupboard-sized apartment. Leeloo, meanwhile, is an orange-haired, scantily clad space nymph. Korben’s initial interest in her seems to be sexual, and he plants a kiss on her just a few minutes after they meet. Leeloo responds by pointing a gun at his head and saying, in her alien language, “never without my permission.”
Besson doesn’t want Leeloo’s rebuke to be a tossed-off example of Korben’s roguish charm; instead, it’s the first step in a longer learning process for the hero. Throughout the film, Korben expresses regret over the unwanted kiss, and as Leeloo takes charge of their mission, Korben becomes little more than her hired gun. Leeloo constantly tells him to let her handle things, and with good reason—she can take out an entire room of bad guys with only her fists. Soon enough, Korben, whose shoot-first approach grows less useful as things progress, comes to see that there’s a greater beauty and meaning in the world.
How else to explain Besson’s insistence on Korben experiencing the opera performance by himself, sitting transfixed at Diva Plavalaguna’s solo while Leeloo fights alien villains? Or the fact that the final set piece is not an extravagant combat sequence, but a simple profession of love that Besson carefully builds to? At that pivotal point in the story, Leeloo is crestfallen—she says she’s witnessed so much violence during her quest that she’s worried humanity might not be worth saving. Korben’s evolution is crucial to winning her over, to proving that there’s still a chance to redeem mankind.
Besson’s sincerity might not have worked as well if it weren’t backed up with his similarly free-spirited design sensibilities. The Fifth Element might be less memorable if it hadn’t followed through on its operatic storytelling, but each frame of the film is a delight to look at, each set a dizzying wonder, each costume (down to Korben’s favorite skintight tank top) a daring fashion choice. The release of Valerian, another emotionally grounded genre work by Besson, is a reminder that the director’s 20-year-old sci-fi classic is worth a second look for much more than its pioneering visuals.
If you took Elinor Dashwood, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and turned her into a male software engineer in his sixties, you’d get my dad. Seriously: He’s kind, smart, moral, sometimes stoic in the extreme. He can be reserved, even about things that he enjoys, which is the only explanation I have for why I’ve never talked to him about our shared enthusiasm for Jane Austen. She has the distinction of being one of two novelists (the other is J.R.R. Tolkien) that break up his almost-entirely-nonfiction reading diet, but I’ve never asked him why. It’s possible that we were too busy marathoning the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice on the couch together.
A few days ago, we talked about what he loves about Austen, and what it’s like to be a male reader in a very female-dominated fandom. I had to start with why his yellowing paperback copy of Sense and Sensibility appears on his nightstand every few years next to his usual science and history books:
Jane Austen writes of a world that has a very clear system of rules and morals, which she believes in. There’s a certainty about how things are supposed to work that is kind of comforting in a way. And the other thing is that she has such a wonderfully clear and lucid style. Some 19th-century writing is hard to read, but her sentence structures are both elegant and straightforward in kind of the same way that Mozart’s music is.
Here is a way to win the woman you’ve loved for eight years from afar: When you see her again, avoid speaking. Jump up and leave when she is in earshot. Do her small favors, especially ones that put you within touching distance—but never let her thank you, and be sure to avoid her gaze. Eavesdrop vigorously; should she say anything that suggests she returns your feelings, write her a letter and hurry out of the room. No, wait, come back! You need to make sure that she’s seen it, so point to the letter and stare at her earnestly, mumbling that you’ve forgotten your gloves. Are you cringing? Don’t worry about Captain Wentworth. Anne Elliot finds him persuasive.
And, I’ll be honest—from the moment I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I did too. I picked up my old copy earlier this month, revisiting my favorite of the novelist’s works for the bicentenary of her death, and was embarrassed to find the margins littered with hearts and exclamation points over its blushing, stumbling lovers. At the time, I was in my first year of college, struggling with the indignities of a crush and the terrible business of making myself likable to strangers, and I identified intensely with Austen’s acute observations of human discomfort. For all her cutting quips and criticism of drawing-room drama, Austen has a soft spot for the socially awkward, and—for this deeply awkward reader, at least—it’s part of what makes her novels so timelessly real.
Of course, the awkwardness isn’t always admirable: Austen’s best comedy comes from characters who excel at making things weird. A single chapter of Pride and Prejudice finds Mary Bennet flaunting her accomplishments with no sense of their mediocrity, Mr. Collins breaching all bounds of etiquette to flatter Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Bennet mortifying her daughters with loud talk of their marriage prospects—all of them quite oblivious to the social rules they break. They get mocked by the narrator in free indirect discourse and by other characters to their faces, and move the plot forward (think Lady Catherine confronting Elizabeth) by sheer force of discomfort—all of which would be mortifying to the consciously self-conscious reader except for the fact that their worst sin, in Austen’s satire, is their lack of self-awareness. If you, like me, spend a lot of time living in fear of being a Mr. Collins, it is probably safe to say that you aren’t one.
Yet if the bumbling fools of Austen’s novels share a lack of social grace, her most insidious villains arguably have an excess of it. The caddish George Wickham, whose “truthful” (read: handsome) looks charm Lizzy Bennet into believing his lies and her sister Lydia into running away with him, has to his credit “no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighborhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the [officers’] mess.” Ditto to Willoughby, Marianne Dashwood’s dashing first love in Sense and Sensibility, whose “lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners” conceal selfishness made more harmful by lack of self-control. It’s as if they’ve spent all their energy on charm, leaving nothing to support the flimsy morals underneath.
The list goes on: In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford begins an ultimately disastrous flirtation with the Bertram sisters with the careless yet calculated “object … of making them like him”; when he actually does profess his love for Fanny Price, she rejects him, unable to believe that he means it. And in Persuasion, Anne is justified in distrusting her cousin William’s polished manners when old letters reveal he’s a cynical climber with little respect for her family: “She felt that she could so much more depend on the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” Too much social skill is suspect—it makes it all too easy to hide an agenda. Awkwardness, on the other hand, is impossible to fake.
And this is where Austen’s redemption of gawkiness comes in—of characters who struggle to perform in front of others. Of Edward Ferrars (brought to stammering life by Hugh Grant in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility), who “was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome … gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.” Of Colonel Brandon, whom Willoughby mocks for his reserve, and whose eventual triumph with Marianne constitutes the original revenge of the nerds. Of Georgiana Darcy, whose display of “all that embarrassment which, though proceeding from shyness and the fear of doing wrong, would easily give to those who felt themselves inferior the belief of her being proud and reserved” parallels—and hints at an explanation for—her proud older brother’s poor reception in the Bennets’ world. If Mr. Wickham has nothing to recommend him but his charm, Mr. Darcy is the exact opposite: a man with plenty of integrity who can’t seem to make anyone like him.
Indeed, Mr. Darcy explains to Elizabeth, he is “ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers,” and his behavior toward her would seem to back that up: After slighting her on their first meeting, he attempts to get to know her by looming at the fringes of her conversations with others (he soon gets caught). To prepare for his fateful declaration-of-love-cum-barrage-of-insults, he confuses her and her friends by sitting silently across from her for extended periods, looking at her “a great deal.”
The first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I was crestfallen to discover that my mother’s ultimate romantic hero was a stiff and sullen bore. It took further readings, and multiple tongue-tying crushes of my own, to realize that Darcy’s silence was a sign of his sincerity. “You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner,” Elizabeth complains as they rehash their courtship—but she can’t reproach him when he replies, “A man who had felt less, might.” On the contrary, she can relate: Though she’s normally more than capable of verbally sparring with Darcy, when he finally tells her that he still loves her, she’s too embarrassed to speak.
Or take Persuasion. Captain Wentworth, just returned from glorious exploits in the Navy, plays the gallant flirt to everyone but Anne, who broke his heart years before and has regretted it ever since. Austen dwells on the minutiae of his behavior, which is admittedly confusing: He ignores her, and then, when they do speak, punctuates it with blushes and starts. He stares long and hard enough to give even Darcy a run for his money, and at one point performs the timeless maneuver of “walk[ing] to the fireplace … for the sake of walking away from it … and taking a station, with less bare-faced design, by Anne.” In other words, he’s obvious. He’s messily, painfully vulnerable, completely in Anne’s power—and his awkwardness lets her know it.
Which is important: Anne is awkward herself, barely able to speak in his presence. But she’s relieved and delighted to see him “obviously struck and confused by the sight of her … not comfortable, not easy, not able to feign that he was.” She reads “sentences begun which he could not quite finish—his half averted eyes, his more than half expressive glance” as evidence that he must love her. And just as Lizzy forces herself to confess her own feelings and rescue Darcy from “the more than common awkwardness and anxiety” of his proposal, Anne, put down and passed over again and again by her relatives, finds courage and confidence in her lover’s embarrassment.
Awkwardness, then, is an equalizer. It creates occasions for the shy to rise to, and pulls the socially powerful—men, and heroes, and those with ten thousand a year—down to the simple, raw, relatable level of their unmasked hopes and fears. In the push-pull of challenge and respect that makes Austen’s romances feel so modern, it’s the place where lovers let slip their vulnerabilities and accept each other—in the classic Austen-adjacent phrase—just as they are.
I could make a feminist case for awkwardness and say that the men’s failure to be smooth helps give Austen’s women power. I could say it fills a social gap by telegraphing the feelings people can’t put into words. Or I could say awkwardness is timeless and human and universal (and I’d mean it). But at the most honest, embarrassing level, this was the hope Persuasion gave me—that even I, misfit and gawky, might yet leave the right person lost for words.