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Friday, 24 August 2007

Anthony Lane's review of Becoming Jane, the latest in a welcome series devoted to the world's favourite novelist, makes me see red. Here's Lane at the bottom of the first column of text:

The scene [Jane's father going down on Mrs Austen], though charming, entails a slight divergence from the habits of the actual Reverend Austen, whose idea of a wild time was to read aloud the poetry of William Cowper.

OK: I promise not to rant. But believe me, the urge to do so is very pressing and I feel a letter to The New Yorker, where Lane has a regular film column, coming on.

Let's make a useful comparison. If the movie, which hinges on the alleged romance between Jane and the relative of a very good friend, is based on, say, ten lines from Jane's letters to her sister, Cassandra, then (I believe) it is not too much license. If you read a top biography of Austen such as Park Honan's, you'll see how those intimately acquainted with the author interpret the milieu.

That's one thing. More evil, because completely unwarranted and due to simple ignorance, is Lane's slur on Cowper, Austen's favourite poet (although a case could also be made for the unregenerate Augustan, George Crabbe). I bet you a thousand smackers Lane has been told who Cowper was, and has never read a single line of his work.

Lane furthermore makes an error at the top of the second column by saying Lefroy (the love-interest) was "a friend of her brother's". It's indicative of the lack of knowledge that is general, in terms of the history of the 18th century.

But to libel Cowper as 'boring' needs some rebuttal and the least powerful argument is that, if he was so boring, why did Jane enjoy his work so much? Is Jane boring too? Evidently not, and we know this if we read her juvenilia. At the same time she wrote these (or a bit later) the first drafts of her first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were written. This was the 1790s -- is this era 'boring', too?

Lane would simply not know. As to Cowper, his poetry was read by Nakokov while the writer-turned-academic researched the tone of 18th century English poetry for use in his outstanding translation of Eugene Onegin. He read everything and the only poet whose work he praised, in artistic terms (clearly the religious content of some of it is slightly ridiculous to the atheist), was Cowper. The only one.

Lane needs a good kick up the arse. In fact, we should not stop at Amazing Grace. A million good 18th-century stories are ripe for script development.

Our lack of interest in the period may be due to the simple fact that 19th-century men wore pants similar to our own while those in the 18th wore breeches and stockings.

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