All Austen, all the time

Or at least on Sunday evenings, in the States, for viewers with PBS. But I’ll take it! Come January, that revered, pre-A&E bastion of British drama in the U.S.,
Masterpiece Theatre,
is hosting a four-month Austen marathon,
replete with adaptations of all six major novels and a new biographical drama, Miss Austen Regrets. Dorothy Snarker wasn’t kidding when she said it’s Jane’s world now.

First, the good news: Olivia Williams, aka Miss Cross in the only Wes Anderson film I enjoy,
stars as “Miss Austen” herself.

Already so much better than Anne Hathaway (against whom I have nothing, but as Austen? I didn’t get it). Greta Scacchi
plays Austen’s sister Cassandra, and since it took an embarrassing moment for me to realize that Williams and Scacchi are not in fact the same person, I can easily buy them as sisters.
I’m also amused by the idea of a scene in which Austen “tipples most liberally” at a party.

The bad news? Yet again, the film is about Austen’s lost loves (or regrets, as the title so subtly indicates). Writer Gwyneth Hughes
claims to have based the film
“very tightly” on Austen’s letters, so I hope that my apprehension is misguided. I’d rather have no tippling at all than another puffed up reading of Austen’s sad, spinster life.

Also good news, the classic, Andrew Davies–penned 1996 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is included in the marathon — providing yet another opportunity to admire
Jennifer Ehle‘s fine eyes. (As if I don’t already do that far more often than I should admit.)

Unfortunately, Kate Beckinsale‘s Emma is also being re-broadcast rather than re-filmed. What I want is an Emma that pulls together the attitude of
Clueless with the supporting cast of the Beckinsale version while putting a few solid British thesps in the lead. Doesn’t seem too much to ask, right? Any casting ideas?

The marathon also brings us new adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. I look forward to
Northanger and Mansfield; the former because it’s about time the odd 1980s version received an update, and the latter because despite my affection for
Patricia Rozema‘s attempt, I see hers as a creative Austen bio rather than a faithful retelling. I hope the Brits present Mansfield‘s Fanny in all her painfully
awkward glory, and since Davies wrote the screenplay for Northanger, I expect he will have retained the humor as he did in Pride and Prejudice. Then again,
he’s also responsible for the horribly unfunny Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,
so perhaps I should temper my expectations.

The other new pictures I don’t look forward to with nearly as much relish. I can already watch Amanda Root (Persuasion) and Emma Thompson and
Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility) play their roles to perfection whenever I want to (and do, again, more often than I should admit). If ever anyone doubts Austen’s
sexiness, I don’t send them to Colin Firth‘s enjoyable but entirely superfluous wet T-shirt scene, I send them to Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor,
which beautifully visualizes the desire that fills the original text.

You can view the broadcast schedule here,
and watch a preview of the series here. Don’t be fooled by Helen Mirren‘s appearance, which
was an awful tease; keep watching and you’ll get it — although, if you’re a fan of Austen for her wit as well as
for her romance, I might advise against it altogether. I didn’t laugh once the entire time, and that is a long sneak peek. Instead, I found myself asking: Why am I excited about this series?

There may be just as many poorly done adaptations as there are good ones, but I can’t help my own optimism. The scholar in me studies Austen for the social critique and revolutionary
narrative, but I’ll admit it — the human in me thrives on the happy ending. So, for those of you who have already seen these adaptations, let us know how they are, but let us down easy.
And for those who have to wait until January, tell us your thoughts — between Becoming Jane
and The Jane Austen Book Club, there have been plenty of
Austen-related conversations around here these days, but in my opinion, there can never be enough.