Polly Shulman’s romantic comedy Enthusiasm isn’t so much an adaptation, as it is a crash course on Austen themes, plot devices, and trivia. The story of two teenage girls, best friends all their lives, who find themselves attracted to the same boy, reads like a love letter to all things JA. Although we are (sort of) spared a reworking of “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Austen’s presence is immediate: protagonist Julie Lefkowitz is a self-professed “person of sense.” Her best friend, Ashleigh, is an “Enthusiast”, incapable of enjoying anything without becoming obsessed. When Ashleigh reads Pride and Prejudice, which happens to be Julie’s favorite book, she embraces it with….well….enthusiasm. This means adopting the book as a manual by which to live. Ashleigh’s enthusiasm is not unlike the desire often seen in adaptations written for adults, with grown women bemoaning the fact that their lives are not like that of an Austen heroine. Or, to be more precise–complaining that they have no Darcy. Ashleigh has a remedy for that problem. She and Julie will simply crash the formal dance at the nearby posh boys’ school and snag themselves a Darcy and a Bingley.
From this point on, Austen herself becomes a peripheral character in the story. There are times that the reader needs to be reminded that Ashleigh’s crazed behaviour is because at one point she read Pride and Prejudice. However, the thematic cap-tipping by Shulman is evident to the informed reader. Consider these examples:
- the two female leads are a combination of a sensible girl and a strong-willed girl completely ruled by her emotions;
- there is a ball in which the heroines encounter the heroes;
- a male provider remarries a woman who puts his previous family’s needs and cares behind her own;
- correspondence between the leads plays an important part in the story;
- there are amateur theatricals (a student-written adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the plot of Enthusiasm sometimes seems to mimic as well;)
- match-making gone wrong;
- the book has a single-word title;
- one character suppressing her love to preserve the feelings and presumed prior claim of another;
- the hero’s name is Grandison;
- Julie’s birthday is December 17th, the day after Jane’s (a fact curiously unmentioned in the story;)
- a scene where Julie and Ashleigh look at portraits in a museum and try to match them to people they know;
- the combination of wealthy hero and less wealthy heroine (yet still a gentleman’s daughter;)
- a guy who thinks he is in a relationship with a girl, but she does not agree (paging John Thorpe.)
Shulman has managed to touch upon almost every one of Austen’s novels and makes a few references to the author’s life as well. Not bad. Whether the book would draw new readers to Austen is another matter. There is not enough Austen analysis within the book to steer readers to the original source material, although the edition I read had bonus material which included “Little Known facts about Enthusiasm and Jane Austen,” The Life and Legacy of Jane Austen”, and “Discussion Questions,” almost all of which are about Jane Austen (as opposed to Enthusiasm) and require a working knowledge of her works to answer. In keeping with the theme of this blog, Question number 1 is ” Why do Jane Austen’s stories translate so well into modern stories?” Good question, but not really relevant to Enthusiasm itself since it is not a straight reworking of a specific work.
Be that as it may, the idea of enthusiasm as a state of being is certainly relevant to Janeites, if not Austen’s books themselves. Whether or not I think Jane Austen’s stories translate well into modern stories (and I’m taking no stands at this point!) there is undeniably something about Jane Austen which we as readers want to embrace and live with, just as Ashleigh (sorry–may I call her Maryanne?) tries to do by wearing long dresses and calling Julie ‘Miss Lefkowitz’. Her hugely demonstrative brand of enthusiasm is but one version of the Janeite passion. As Julie says when she realizes that her friend has gone bonkers for Pride and Prejudice:
“Now, for the first time, I had taken the lead, introducing her to an interest of my own. But how long would it be before her passion overshadowed mine? Would she take over my favorite books, leaving nothing for me? I was convinced that I felt as strongly about Jane Austen’s books as Ashleigh had ever felt about any of her crazes, but my love was deep and silent–and therefore easily overshadowed. I would never, for example, speak Jane Austen’s language. That would be undignified and unworthy of the writer I adored. ” (p. 4)
Julie is the side of fandom which is happy enough with the canon; who can return to those six novels time after time and find new gems to savor. Ashleigh is fueling the business in P&P prequels, sequels, murder mysteries, time-travel stories, and graphic novels.
Interestingly, one question the story does not answer is whether or not Ashleigh’s enthusiasm survives the end of her craze. Once she can approach Austen with a level(ish) head, does she chose to read Northanger Abbey? Or Emma? It’s hard to imagine that a reader who loved Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t at least pick up one more Austen. And one who was enthusiastic about her….no excuse not to.