The Austen Observer

Keeping you up to date with all your South England News

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Recent decades have seen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels into television mini-series, film, and with the advent of the internet, online series on platforms such as YouTube. For our creative project, we decided to adapt Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility using print media, gathered on our community newspaper entitled The Austen Observer. The Austen Observer includes news items, character profiles, tabloid reports, and entertainment quizzes that could have conceivably been published during the Regency era had print media, as it exists today, been transplanted to the 18th and 19th century. Each individual piece is connected to the themes and plot points in Sense and Sensibility. Using print media allows us to communicate to modern readers the high stakes facing Austen’s characters and contemporaries. The private lives of public figures were once the subject of gossip and rumour, much as they are now. This had the consequence of their lives being accurately updated via print media since the reputations of people still depended upon their public behaviour, and each transgression of social norms is discussed by many readers and not easily erased from public memory. Our central idea here is not an updated version of Sense and Sensibility, but an updated medium in which each event within the novel can be taken out, examined, and understood in accordance with the themes Austen explored: relationships, social expectations and norms, politeness, respectability, and the challenges facing women in light of each of these.

The newspaper opens up with an obituary on Mr. Dashwood. We felt that this was a significant piece to begin with as it is the event which opens the novel, setting the trials and tribulations faced by the characters of Sense and Sensibility. Following the obituary, we included a profile on the new Dashwoods moving into Norland Park that serves as a character analysis on Fanny Dashwood. Here, Fanny Dashwood is understood as a woman who cares very much about her social standing but is unconcerned about the consequences of turning out her extended family. Taste is a theme that is explored further in a home-and-garden inspired piece on cottages. The author’s concern with the “defective cottage” (p. 65) is highlighted in this section as it explores the ‘correct’ and ‘tasteful’ way to decorate one’s cottage. After all, it is not a symbol of a lower socioeconomic status, it is a statement house!

The quizzes and tabloid pieces highlight the importance of relationships and social propriety in Austen’s time. Each quiz within our project focuses on the theme of relationships and is written in the style of a “women’s interest” magazine. This choice was made as relationships, today and in the Regency period, are regulated to the feminine sphere. Although this does not mean relationships are not important for men in society – indeed, Mr. Ferrars is saved from a life of destitution due to his social connections, and Mr. Knightley is a well-respected man as a result of his dedication to the villagers of Highbury – but the stakes for women are much higher. With no social connections, a woman can hardly make an advantageous marriage. If a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, she has ‘fallen’, while characters such as Mr. Willoughby may go on to marry a woman of consequence and some tens of thousands of pounds per year. Furthermore, Lydia’s transgression would have ruined not only her reputation but also those of her sisters. The ability to correctly navigate a courtship was paramount for Regency women. This is also emphasized in the piece on Edward Ferrars’ loss of inheritance, the tabloid pieces, and the TMZ-style video – while the loss of one’s inheritance is not an insignificant event, men had much more avenues to earn income and did not suffer the same degree of social and financial repercussions that women did as a result of improper behavior. The tabloid pieces also provide commentary on scandalous and salacious events in the novel: Willoughby’s seduction of the younger Eliza, the overly familiar relationship between Marianne and Willoughby, and Lucy Steele’s hasty engagement to Robert Ferrars. These events would be considered outside the bounds of social propriety in Regency era and tend to disproportionately focus on the actions or presumed actions of women, rather than men.

Our piece on the opening of the season highlights the importance of the Season to social life in Regency England. The connections formed during this time in London were vital as the upper class were scattered across the English countryside and would not have had the opportunity to forge these connections otherwise. Where to go, what to wear, and who to be seen with were an important part of London life. We thus modelled this piece on such events as London or New York Fashion Week. During this time, the important movers-and-shakers of the fashion world (that is, the tastemakers) and opportunistic celebrities and novices descend upon the city to advance their own connections. To be noticed by designers, models, and fashion magazines is the ultimate goal. This allows a distinct parallel to be drawn between these events and the Season in London.

The concept of the sickroom is explored in a recipe modelled after those published by lifestyle bloggers. These bloggers use recipes to share anecdotes about their lives, painting a vivid picture of their lives as fashionable, tasteful, and competent mothers and wives. This style lends itself well to an application of a modern lens to Austen’s work, as femininity and its requirements – specifically, the accomplishments required to be a proper woman – is much debated in Austen’s work. Written in Elinor’s voice, this piece explores the consequences of Marianne’s illness, which align with the literary device of the sickroom. As Elinor documents, loved and estranged characters both come to Marianne’s side to resolve quarrels and contribute to her redemption.

Our project ends with the ultimate question: have you more sense or sensibility? This tongue-in-cheek quiz highlights the circumstances in which Austen’s work was produced. Sensibility is the abundance of emotion that spurs action, or that moves a person to tears, at something such as an aria or the plight of a human being; sensibility was, unsurprisingly, a feminine trait. Too much sense, however, can come off as emotionless, cold, and unmoving; just as undesirable as an overtly sensible disposition. Through Sense and Sensibility, Austen demonstrated her belief that a healthy balance between sense and sensibility was the most appropriate, and most fulfilling, way to live.

From Shona, Emily, Norhan, Caitlin, and Elise.

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