Remember when you couldn’t go to a multiplex without bumping into a Jane Austen adaptation? The mid-’90s were a veritable explosion of corseted dresses and witty courtships, from faithful period pieces like 1995’s Sense and Sensibility to 1996’s Emma to updated valley-girl translations like Clueless (1995). In 1999, a Canadian company tackled Austen’s more obscure Mansfield Park, TV viewers tuned in to countless BBC miniseries versions of her work, and the fad lasted until about 2005, when Keira Knightley starred in Pride & Prejudice.
But recently, USA Today notices, Austen’s fashionable fairy tales have begun to fall out of vogue. And it looks like this decade’s 19th-century literary It Girls will be none other than the Brontë sisters: Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre will both hit the big screen next year and a biopic is also in development. So, what gives? Why have the Brontës subsumed Austen in the pop-culture imagination?
James Schamus of Focus Features offers USA Today the following take on what sets the Brontës apart from Austen: “Austen’s characters achieve their greatness through a kind of sideways movement toward happiness, (while) the Brontës hurtle themselves headlong into the maelstrom of emotions and situations.” While Austen’s novels take place in polite, upper-middle-class society. They’re full of fancy hairdos and social pretensions and gossip and garden parties. Emotions might sometimes run high, but a strict code of manners governs every interaction. For the Brontës, who, the paper reminds us, “grew up impoverished, reading widely and compulsively scribbling down the contents of their rich imaginations” and suffered much illness and loss, material possessions and social standing weren’t nearly as important as wild love and dark mystery.
In these weird economic times, it seems only natural that we’d identify more with governesses and orphans than ladies of leisure. Suddenly, who’s contriving for who to marry whom can seem like an awfully small concern (although we suppose that hasn’t stopped the Sex and the City hype). If we’re going to indulge in romance stories, perhaps we’re looking for something more consuming and even twisted, with higher stakes, dramatic breakdowns, burning houses, and weddings that double as hostage situations. And that’s exactly what the Brontës bring to the table.
Let’s also not forget that Wuthering Heights is a Twilight favorite, the book Edward and Bella obsess over. In fact, the series has Emily’s book sales skyrocketing, perhaps aided by a new cover clearly designed to cash in on vampire chic. As Meyer realized, the appeal of the Brontë novels is very similar to that of the vamp-craze films and books (not to mention they’re about as chaste as Twilight). They’re all about romance that manifests as pain, men who, despite their love may be too monstrous to tame, and the women who can’t help but be devoted to them. We have been critical of vampire mania in the past, and it still creeps us out a bit. But if it’s helped to bring Heathcliff and Jane and Lucy and Rochester back into the popular imagination, it can’t be all bad.