If you need an escape these days, put a Jane Austen movie in the DVD player. I recently did just that as I watched Pride and Prejudice (2005), Emma (1996), and Sense and Sensibility (1995). Each film was a refreshing and relaxing two-hour respite during this time of quarantine. It may seem strange that a man enjoys these stories, but I’ll give you three reasons why I do.
First, they transport me to a time and place in which manners were held in high regard. That’s not to say that every character is a nice person, but almost everyone shows an appreciation for how one should interact with others in society. Jane Austen’s world was one unlike ours, in which the focus was not merely on the individual, but also on society as a whole. The dances and social functions displayed in the films are elaborate courses on etiquette, governed by tradition and unspoken rules. One can lament the restrictive social class structure, but the respect and honor showed by the participants must be admired. Perhaps the best example of this is when Mr. Knightly chides Emma for her rude behavior toward the poor Miss Bates at a group picnic. The rebuke leaves Emma guilt-stricken, but it eventually helps her to mature and become less selfish. This emphasis on manners can also lead to humorous situations such as in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal, but she must do so in the politest way possible. Considering the current coarseness in our own culture, I find myself tempted to long for Jane Austen’s world of civility.
Second, these movies remind me of the importance of family. I get the sense that feminists are conflicted over Austen’s novels. The stories depict a world in which women are dependent upon marriage for financial security and social standing. On the other hand, some feminists see Austen’s biting irony and critiques of the social customs of her day as evidence that she was one of them. I don’t really want to enter that debate. Regardless of what Austen intended, her novels create a certain nostalgia for her world and her times. It is refreshing to see the home as the center of the society. In each decision, individuals think of their family’s well-being, not just their own. For example, in the movie Emma, the titular protagonist won’t agree to marry Mr. Knightly until he agrees to live at Hartfield—for the sake of Emma’s father. Mr. Knightly gladly agrees. In Pride and Prejudice, the family shares in mutual happiness as Lydia, Jane, and Elizabeth are all married within a short period of time. And in Sense and Sensibility, the rest of the family wait outside gleefully as Elinor is proposed to inside the house. The two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, soon have a joint wedding to share in their bliss.
The third reason I love these movies is that they show us the beauty of nature and rural life. In Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne is running in the rain over the rich, verdant countryside to search for Willoughby, one cannot help to long for such grounds on his own similar estate. And in Emma when the two friends, Emma and Harriet, are outside under a tent doing needlework, or when Emma is painting a portrait of her friend, Harriet, on a bridge, the viewer is privileged to relish in these dream-like scenes of serenity. Finally, at the end of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth meets Darcy on the moor in the morning sunlight, it is the epitome of early 19th-century romance. It is as though Nature becomes another character in the story. The fact that these movies produce such sentimental responses in the viewer is ironic considering that, in her novels, Austen was poking fun at novels of sensibility and such displays of emotion.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Jane Austen. I haven’t even read most of her books. I’m currently reading Emma. I appreciate the high-quality of the writing, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a page turner. But I thoroughly enjoy the movies. They are felicity-inducing at a time when most things are not. They are light when the world seems heavy. One doesn’t watch these movies for the plot or the resolution of such, but for the beautiful journey. Would it be stretching credulity to assert that these movies make us kinder, happier, and more grateful? I don’t think so. I’d like to think that’s the effect that they’ve produced in me.