Jennifer Smart writes of her love for Jane Austen and her portrayal of the universal truth.
I love Jane Austen. That’s not an extraordinary statement. I’m sure many of you do too. And like me, you probably love her stories in whatever form they take but I’m always drawn back to the books.
In some literary circles, it’s quite fashionable to sneer at chick lit, to class it as second rate. Somehow, stories written for women, by women, dealing with aspects of our lives we’re actually interested in reading about, are less valid than the ‘big’ life questions. You know, like What’s The Meaning of Life? Well, when I’m not making school lunches, dropping the kids at school, music, sport and dance classes, when I’m not trying to do a Pilates class, squeeze in a 30-minute walk, trying to make quality time for my husband and, oh yes, work, I’ll give it some thought. Meanwhile, I’ll read a book that I can relate to and enjoy. Jane Austen didn’t have quite those same pressures, but she did write about the lives of the women she knew and I’m happy to claim her as the grandmother of chick lit.
Jane Austen was writing in a time when the novel was a relatively new art form. Previously, novels written about women, were mostly authored by men and the female heroines were usually ‘damaged’, such as Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharpe and Clarissa. Jane Austen wrote about women who could have lived in any village or town in England. Women who lead unremarkable lives in polite, middle-class society. Women who had little choice in how their lives would unfold beyond getting married to one of an incredibly limited number of suitors. (Mr Collins anybody?) We’re talking about a time before personal ads were placed in papers, let alone internet dating.
So, why is it that Jane Austen’s stories have not only endured, but been embraced by pop culture; made into numerous movies, TV series, updated and retold, audio books and even a gorgeous range of board books for toddlers? Some aspects of the stories are no longer even relevant. Thankfully, women don’t have to worry about being disinherited simply because they are female. I’d like to confess that I have some sympathy for the much-maligned Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She is only trying to secure her daughters’ futures, which is why I love Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of her in Joe Wright’s film version of Pride and Prejudice – the one with Keira Knightley and Tom from Spooks as Mr Darcy- because she’s more than just an hysterical idiot.
The beauty of Jane Austen’s novels is the love stories, her wit and beautiful language in telling these stories, her creation of wholly believable and entertaining characters and the universal truth at their heart. That when a girl meets the right boy, be at the local regional ball or over a Boxing Day turkey curry buffet, we want a happy ending.
I’ve always loved, Persuasion. In fact, Anne Elliot, the book’s heroine, was Austen’s favourite character. It would be fair to say, that my novel, The Wardrobe Girl, is loosely based on Persuasion. At the same time, it’s also loosely based on the five years I spent working as a Directors’ Assistant on the iconic Australian soap opera, Home and Away. In The Wardrobe Girl, Anne Elliot has reincarnated into Tess Appleby, wardrobe standby on Pretty Beach Rescue, a show that bears many similarities to Home and Away. Like Anne Elliot, Tess has a self-obsessed parent, her mother, Maggie Kelman, a retired actress, an equally self-obsessed sister, Emma, an aspiring actress and an absent father, who is a well-known Hollywood director. Tess also faces the emotional trauma of having to work with her former fiance, Jake Freeman, whom she hasn’t seen for eight years. And while there are no scenes set on the breakwater of Lyme Regis, Bondi Beach does feature.
Although Tess inhabits a fictional story, the life she leads is recognisably real for modern women, even if you haven’t worked on a TV show. She has crises of confidence in both her professional life and her love life. There are set backs and small victories and significant life decisions to be made. Sometimes she even makes the right decision.
Jane Austen, may never have used the term ‘soulmate’, but I think she’d understand the intention. After all, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are meant to be together, Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy were made for each other. But is it still realistic to believe in The One, when we have so many options available to us in all aspects of our lives? I hope so. It would be a sad world without love and romance.
‘It’s just string bikinis, thongs and boardies on Pretty Beach Rescue. You could do it drunk and standing on your head.’
After the humiliating end of her last relationship, this is just what TV costume designer, Tess Appleby, needs to hear. Sure, a wardrobe assistant on a soap is a step down from her gig at the BBC, but all Tess wants is an easy life … Unfortunately she’s barely arrived on set before she’s warding off the attentions of the show’s heartthrob, Sean Tyler – and, as a consequence, the hostility of its other star, Bree Brenner. And if the pressures and politics of working on a TV drama aren’t enough, she’s living with her high-maintenance mother, an ageing celebrity, and her infuriating sister Emma, an aspiring actress. Still, Tess is certain she can deal with everything they throw at her – until Jake Freeman, her ex-fiancé, the man she last saw eight years ago as he walked away and broke her heart, is named the show’s new director.
Jennifer Smart has worked for many years in film and television, including five years on the Australian drama Home and Away as a director’s assistant and then scriptwriter. She lives in Sydney.