Jane Austen Has Never Been Hotter

Or so says the Times.
Gordon Brown’s teeth were controversial enough. But the most intriguing cosmetic retouching of the past month involves someone who doesn’t have to worry about her popularity.
Jane Austen has never been hotter. ITV, our most populist terrestrial channel, is giving up its peak Sunday-evening slots to adaptations of her novels. Anne Hathaway stars as Austen, alongside Maggie Smith, in the big-budget Hollywood biopic Becoming Jane, while Pride and Prejudice is to be remade as a time-travel saga. And the novels themselves are shifting more quickly than you can say Bridget Jones.
Yet despite all this, publishers have still felt the need to give Jane a heat magazine-style makeover. The traditional portrait of Austen on the cover of her novels has been retouched to remove her lace nightcap, enhance her cheeks with some beauty-salon rouging and, to complete the Beckhamisation, hair extensions have been added.
Why, you have to ask, is this sort of treatment necessary? Haven’t the publishers asked themselves why Austen’s novels are so popular at the moment?
The controlled irony, precise social observation and acuity of Austen’s writing offers us a refuge from the moronic inferno of modern trash culture. Everywhere the air is thick with the sound of barrels being scraped. Channel 4, a TV station founded and still supported by the State to broaden the nation’s cultural life, has become a cheapened and tawdry ratings-trawler; its makeover shows, such as Ten Years Younger, a tragic symbol of its doomed pursuit of freshness. Yet while Austen’s popularity is driven by a reaction against such superficiality, her publishers embrace the cult. Why?
The new Austen pic cannot be deployed to entice the producers of Richard & Judy into getting Jane on the sofa, nor can it be exploited to persuade the organisers of the Hay literary festival that it is worth booking her for a colloquium with Monica and Zadie. So what is behind this manipulation of how a classic writer is depicted?
Now, as anyone whose eye strays to the top of this column would concur, I am in a weak position when it comes to what constitutes a good visual image for a writer. The picture that graces this article makes me look, I am told, like a genetically modified Robin Day, shorn of the original’s charm and given a Proclaimers haircut. So I might be thought a touch too sensitive on the subject of managing writers’ appearances.
Perhaps. But while I should maybe think of having my column picture retouched, if only to make it possible for under15s to look at this page without a counsellor present, it still strikes me as significant that so much effort should have gone into retouching the image of a long-dead writer.
It may seem flip, but the only plausible explanation I can find for the retouching of Jane is a simple acknowledgment that when it comes to author pictures, publishers are always at it. There is scarcely a publicity shot of any contemporary author that looks like the real writer. The modern mistresses of chick-lit are all backlit, teased and air-brushed into icons of impossible glamour anyway, so why should the original queen of romance not get an image upgrade, too?
The publishing industry seems to believe that no modern woman can write knowledgeably about affairs of the heart unless she looks like a total fox, so presumably, when they came across plain Jane Austen’s rather homely features, they concluded that she had to be turned into a Regency version of Fiona Bruce before any new reader could take her seriously as a guide to the intricacies of sexual entanglement.
There is, of course, a great irony in all this and one that Austen would instantly recognise. The whole of her literary output constitutes an extensive, nuanced yet repeated warning against judging by appearances.
In Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham’s charm and good looks temporarily blind Elizabeth Bennet, then dazzle her sister Lydia into a foolish elopement. In Emma, both Frank Churchill and Philip Elton seem models of eligibility at first but it is the older, initially rather dull-seeming Mr Knightley who emerges as the perfect husband. And in Mansfield Park, the characters who initially entrance everyone, Henry and Mary Crawford, are eventually revealed as shallow to the point of wickedness.
Austen’s novels are full of many other good things — perceptive commentary on social change in a time of revolution and war, a humane moral conservatism that owes a great deal to Burke and Aristotle, a defence of Christian cultural traditions against commercial coarsening — but all these themes underpin a greater one: the importance of looking beyond surface fashion, charm and sparkle when making judgments, and the absolute need to trust character as revealed through action. If the Austen message were distilled into one proverb, it would be “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Yet that is what the publishers feel they have to do now. Our society, they seem to think, can accept Austen only as a looker, not as an observer. It’s a prejudice of which none of us can feel proud.
That was the whole article, but you can find it here at the Times, too.

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