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Sunday Age

Austen's powers

Author: Melinda Houston
Date: 15/06/2008
Words: 880
Source: SAG
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: M
Page: 37
Even without the nuance of the original prose, these stories offer a much-loved commodity, writes Melinda Houston.

What is it about Jane Austen? Almost 200 years after her death, the parson's daughter continues to delight and fascinate, sometimes to a slightly creepy extent. Going way beyond the book club, fans hold Austen balls and tea parties, make a study of 19th-century muslins, take excursions to the sites named in the novels, and generate an industry of Austen artefacts and memorabilia equal only, perhaps, to that of the Australian cricket team.

And nowhere has her popularity been more thoroughly exploited than on the small screen. We've always loved her, but that adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was the catalyst for a whole new world of Jane-on-the-telly, some portion of which we've been enjoying on Sunday-night ABC.

Tonight, as the season continues with Northanger Abbey, some things begin to become evident. The first is that Austen is timeless in every sense. The version of Emma screened recently was 12 years old, but no one seemed to mind. It's Austen, so we watched. With pleasure. (And it does take much longer for costume dramas to date.)

But the stories themselves still feel modern. The things that distinguished Austen in her own lifetime and separated her from her peers - the lack of hysteria, the sly satire, the quotidian detail, and a succession of heroines as smart as they're feisty - make it easy for a 21st-century audience to connect - as does Austen's firm entrenchment in the middle-class (at least in today's terms), in both her life and work.

It's a social strata that's easy to identify with. We know that if Austen's families were around today, they'd be living in Balwyn, driving Japanese four-wheel-drives, buying frocks at David Lawrence and holidaying in Noosa.

Austen's world was ordinary. And we like that.

What also becomes clear, though - especially watching several stories in succession, as the ABC has invited us to do - is that, stripped of much of the nuance of Austen's prose, the bedrock of the stories is pure soap. And that, surely, must be a powerful contributing factor to her enduring popularity. (Indeed, the devotion of some Austen fans is awfully like that of soap fans, who discuss characters as if they're real people and dissect plot developments with the enthusiasm and attention to detail of senior military strategists.)

Austen on the telly may be wittier than The Bold and The Beautiful, and much better-dressed. But most of the key plot machinations wouldn't be out of place in Summer Bay or Ramsay Street.

In Emma, inconvenient relatives die at opportune moments; Miss Woodhouse realises, apropos of nothing in particular, that she loves Mr Knightley after all, just in time to receive his proposal, which also seems to be prompted by nothing much.

Last week, Persuasion was even more riddled with extraordinary coincidence. At the very moment Anne is obliged to vacate the family home, it's taken over by Admiral Croft, who - who would have thought? - is closely related to Anne's lost love, Captain Wentworth.

Then, just when it seemed Anne would be leaving the neighbourhood (on account of having to vacate her home) she's obliged to stay with her sister, instead. Lucky. Because that keeps her in close proximity to Captain Wentworth, who obligingly comes to visit Admiral Croft almost instantly.

Later, every character in the book conveniently ends up in Bath - for a variety of complicated reasons of varying plausibility - thus allowing Anne to ditch one suitor, reconnect with her one true love, and live happily ever after.

Even Austen's masterwork, Pride and Prejudice, is riddled with similar tricks and happy accidents. Otherwise unconnected characters turn out to be related or well-acquainted; impromptu trips enable key encounters to occur; unlikely emergencies allow true natures to be revealed, all just in the nick of time. If any writer of contemporary TV drama tried tricks like that, they'd be howled down.

It was, of course, something to which Austen was fully alive. In Northanger Abbey, screening tonight, she plays with the whole idea of the absurdity of fiction, to considerable comic effect. But not many of the television adaptations of Austen bring the original funny. Two hundred years (and the varying quality of the scripts) has sapped a lot of the gags and what we're really left with is a succession of sudsy romances - albeit delightful ones - elevated to art by the Austen brand.

As audiences for The Bold and the Beautiful, or Home and Away, or Neighbours attest, there's a ready market for sudsy romances, in costume or not.

And perhaps the real secret to the success of Austen on the telly is encapsulated in the penultimate scene in tonight's Northanger Abbey when one of our heroine's siblings attracts her attention by crying out: "Cathy! Cathy! It's a man on a white horse!"

When it comes to our obsession with Austen on TV, the truth universally unacknowledged is that even the most highbrow secretly yearn for both order and romance. The most intellectually prideful and culturally prejudiced love a happy ending. And by dressing those irresistible traits in the respectable cloak of Austen's literary reputation, we're all given permission to indulge ourselves. Which is something Austen, bless her, understood all too well.

Northanger Abbey: tonight, 8.30pm, ABC1

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