I have always loved the novels of Jane Austen. My favorites are "Emma," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Sense and Sensibility." I have often been amazed that a woman who rarely ventured beyond her small village in England could write about important issues filtered through the microcosm of her small, circumscribed world. She wrote with humor, irony, and sharp insights into human nature and filled her novels with unforgettable characters.
When I heard that UCLA professor Charles Linwood Batten was giving a talk on Jane Austen entitled, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Jane Austen, " and that it was being held at the beautiful Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills, I signed up.
Pool Pavilion at Robinson Gardens
I have heard Professor Batten speak on many different topics, but my favorite is his lecture on Jane Austen.
Professor Batten manages to be both an erudite scholar and a witty storyteller, with a twinkle in his eye and a wonderful sense of humor. He is someone you'd love to have at a dinner party. In his lecture he asks the question, why do movie makers and television producers continue to make films out of Jane Austen's books and life and why do writers continue to rewrite her novels? ("The Three Weissmanns of Westport" by Cathleen Schine and "The Cookbook Collector" by Allegra Goodman are two recent examples of books.) What is Jane Austen doing that is so universally and timelessly appealing?
The 1996 film version of "Emma" with Gwyneth Paltrow
The 1995 film version of "Sense and Sensibility"with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet
The 1995 television production of "Pride and Prejudice" with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth
The 2007 film "Becoming Jane," with Anne Hathaway
Professor Batten argues that she is giving us truths about life. Truths about people, human behavior, and self-knowledge. In our own lives we know the people that populate Austen's novels. These are characters we recognize as being true. We face many of the same challenges her characters face. Considering that in her whole life, Jane Austen never travelled further than one hundred and fifty miles from home, it's amazing that she knew so much about life and human nature. As readers, we have the satisfying experience of watching the education of Austen's characters, and at the same time, of gaining wisdom to apply to our own lives.
Batten challenged us to list all the characters from Jane Austen's novels and to find their counterpart in our own lives. The way a birdwatcher, after spotting a bird, checks it off his list, we could do the same with her characters. We all know a Mrs. Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Harriet Smith, Marianne Dashwood, or Mrs. Elton. I've started my own list, and it's amazing to discover how many people I know that are similar to the characters in her books. I challenge you to start your own. It's a revelation and a lot of fun.
I guess you could say that "It is a truth universally acknowledged" that if Professor Batten is speaking about Jane Austen, laughter, education, and insight will prevail. Now I just have to figure out, which Jane Austen character am I? Hmmm...