To the inconvenience of its residents, the lobby of my building -- an old Beaux Arts hotel in Baltimore -- was closed off to residents yesterday since it was being used, we were told, to shoot a scene for the upcoming movie, He's Just Not That Into You. Moving my car from its usual convenient spot to make way for the film company vehicles, I thought to myself, wait a minute, He's Just Not That Into You? Wasn't that last year's dating advice book, a spin-off from an episode of Sex and the City? As I remember it, the two authors encourage a form of tough self-love, commanding women to stop puzzling over the behavior of less-than-enthusiastic suitors and dump them like the dogs they are. The book's message was considered painful but empowering (at least by Oprah, and who else matters?) because a man who really loves you will treat you with the adoration you deserve. Which, apparently, is endless.
A dating advice book seems unlikely material for a movie, but there's no reason for cynicism; after all, great movies have been made from thinner material. I'm reminded of the advice book that Katie, one of my students, was telling me about last week: Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine's Guide to Life and Love. Written by Patrice Hannon, it appropriates the voice of Jane Austen to address today's girl on such topics as finances, dating etiquette, family matters, sex, and most important, how to recognize the special man that may just turn out to be your future husband (clue: He's NOT the guy who's Just Not That Into You). I asked Katie if she really thought Jane Austen -- who, I reminded her, died an unmarried virgin at the age of 41 -- was she really qualified to give sex tips to the modern girl. Katie said that wasn't the point; it's not the REAL Jane Austen, but a fantasy version of her. Let's call this fantasy Jane Austen™.
Dear Jane Austen is part of the current revival of Austenmania, most evident at the movies, where Austen-themed films are constantly cropping up. This year has brought us Becoming Jane, a biographical portrait starring pretty Anne Hathaway as the famously plain spinster, and The Jane Austen Book Club, a cheerfully sentimental comedy about the title coffee-klatsch. Slated for release next year are Sense and Sensibilidad, a Latina spin on Austen's novel set in contemporary Los Angeles, and Jane Austen Handheld, which retells Pride and Prejudice through the lens of a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew.
There's no point trying to understand what it is about Jane Austen that's so compelling to today's women, because Jane Austen™ has very little to do with Jane Austen. Jane Austen™ is a retro fantasy creation, a sassy, ironic, independent woman. Jane Austen™ is all about social snubs, overheard conversations, implied relationships, and signifiers of status, especially hair and clothes. Jane Austen™ thrives in social enclaves full of privileged women obsessed with material wealth, class distinctions, and, always, the underlying mating dance. Exactly like He's Just Not That Into You.
In the world of Jane Austen™ the women who win may not be perfectly beautiful, but they're witty, smart, and well dressed. It's perhaps no coincidence that the actress who plays Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, the voluptuous Hathaway, is best known as the star of The Princess Diaries, since Jane Austen™ is essentially The Princess Diaries for grownups. It may be a lovely fantasy, but I suspect the historical Jane Austen would be Just Not That Into It.