Over the past few weeks, the Austenacious Google Alerts have been packed with reviews of the movie Belle—the biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an eighteenth-century English noblewoman of mixed race. I only see the reviews that mention Jane Austen, of course—otherwise they wouldn’t ping my Google Alert—but a whole lot of people seem to agree: Belle is a lot like an Austen adaptation.
I know what that means, and I also don’t know what that means. What makes something “like” a Jane Austen novel?
To me, Jane’s work feels incredibly specific in nearly every way: time period, setting, sphere of knowledge and influence, sense of humor, style, voice. I see Jane as her own genre. After all, who else would we group with her? Who else was writing at the same time about the same subjects, and is still in print? Who sounds like her? The closest colleague I can think of is Elizabeth Gaskell, and can we really say Dickens’s and Charlotte Bronte’s Victorian social-novelist BFF is “like Jane”? I don’t expect the general movie-going public to sort 19th-century English women writers into subdivisions—I’m all for “People in Olden Times Having Romantical Problems” (TM the Fug Girls) myself—but I also can’t go so far as to say they’re all comparable. If anything, in writing from an exclusively female perspective, without a social or moral agenda (ahem, Gaskell and George Eliot) or stalking dramatically about the moors (heyyy, Brontes!), Jane was the odd woman out.
(I’m not actually saying Belle isn’t Austenacious in nature. In fact, the real Dido Elizabeth Belle was a slightly earlier contemporary of Austen’s and lived with her uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield, whom I think we can assume had a notable ha-ha.)
If I’m going to make comparisons with Austen, they’re likely to be with writers who channel the Austenian sensibility of narrow focus, gently astringent humor, and telling the truth about humans—not necessarily period pieces, and not necessarily the “chick-lit” that’s so often assumed to be her legacy (mostly due to Bridget Jones’s Diary). When I think of writers and works who are “like Jane Austen,” I think of Penelope Fitzgerald’s tart little small-town novel The Bookshop, and of the Emma-ness of Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, and of Alan Bennett’s charming and economical The Uncommon Reader. I think of Margaret Atwood, whose politics and feminist dystopian sci-fi work Jane would never have imagined, but who I think inherited a certain rhythm from her anyway. It’s about voice and view point more than about demographics, I guess.
Readers, what about you? What makes something “like” Jane Austen for you?