Miss Austen Regrets . . . What?

Given the present interest in Jane Austen, the person and her fiction, BBC One is likely to attract a sizable audience tonight with its biographical drama Miss Austen Regrets (previously broadcast in the US). According to the current issue of the Radio Times, which declares it to be the “Drama of the Week,” the film is concerned with Austen’s final years, which should leave many of those tuning in to this “Whatever Became of Jane?” tale rather less than elated. As such, it is a laudable project that stands apart from the Becoming Jane stories preferred in Hollywood. What might she have to regret, though, that Doris Day of the literary world? Surely not the fact that she remained what used to be termed a “spinster”?

While I rather prefer the more robust novels of the Brontës, or the Schadenfreude of Fanny Burney, I was only too pleased to be going on a literary tour in search of Austen’s homes in the south of England. Shown here are three of the author’s residences I have visited (or merely walked past) since moving to Britain in the fall of 2004. Chawton, in Hampshire (above), Bath (center), and Austen’s final home in Winchester (below).

Miss Austen may be unable to lunch these days; but at Chawton, the exterior of which is featured in the film, you can gawk at cups and spoons that may (or may not) have belonged to her family. Traveling, to be sure, is no substitute for reading; nor, for that matter, is listening to dramatizations of her works, of which there are many.

Although she is particularly popular in these early days of the 21st century, Austen has long been considered a most adaptable novelist. Her lively dialogue renders novels like Pride and Prejudice ideally suited to the stage and screen, while, on the radio, even the epistolary form of her earlier, posthumously published Lady Susan constitutes no impediment. The novels adapted for US radio during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s are Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey (NBC University Theater, 15 October 1950), as well as Pride and Prejudice.

On this day, 27 April, in 1941, Jessica Tandy was heard in a Great Plays production of Pride and Prejudice, subsequent adaptations of which starred Joan Fontaine (Theater Guild, 18 November 1945) and Angela Lansbury (University Theater, 20 February 1949). In whatever truncated form, the story was also presented on Studio One (12 August 1947), Romance (first on 13 June 1944, numerous times thereafter, and shared online here), the James Hilton-hosted Hallmark Playhouse (8 July 1948) and the syndicated 1940s program Favorite Story.

Would Austen have made a good radio writer? This is a question once posed and answered by William Morwood, a writer who scripted episodes of series like Murder at Midnight, The Shadow and the daytime drama Road of Life. In an article written back in 1986 for Persuasions, the Journal of the Jane Austen Society, Morwood quipped that “Austen had a real potential as a daytime serial writer.” In the case of Pride and Prejudice, however, she made the fatal error to bring the story to a “happy ending” after what would serve as material for no more than perhaps three years on the air. In daytime there could be no final and happy endings short of a cancellation.”

The ending that Gwyneth Hughes, the writer of Miss Austen Regrets, conceived for the novelist’s personal story fully justifies the title. I am still not convinced, however, that Austen should have had anything to be remorseful about. We, on the other hand, would have reason to feel sorry for ourselves if Austen had married and raised a family rather than giving up for adoption the issue of her mind and heart’s imaginings.

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