In our very first marathon, we’re taking the season at its word and focusing on movies that entwine Austen’s novels and Christmas. We are curious about the increasing number of holiday movies touting Austen novel titles—and also a bit suspicious. For instance, Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen (Hallmark, 2019), which we decided against reviewing due to a paywall (and today we have one more reason not to pay a dime), seemed like a stretch even to the casual reviewer. To be sure, the connection between Jane Austen’s novels and Christmas is as old as the novels. The opening chapters of Emma, which was published just in time for the holidays, on December 23rd, 1815, capture the seasonal commingling of family tension and joy as Emma assuages Mr. Woodhouse’s concern that they will not have a fair share of Isabella, John, and the children’s time during their Christmas visit. Janeites know well that the connection between Austen and the holiday season is not limited to Emma or Austen’s birthday, which is today. (Happy 244th Birthday, Jane Austen!). A quick Internet search or scroll down Twitter proves that the holidays have for long been a time to engage in meaningful ways with Jane Austen’s work and historical context. What’s new is the Hallmark Channel’s Austen holiday movie. And as the events of the past week show, this relationship is bound to fail.
Just in the last decade, Janeites have produced a veritable library of nostalgic holiday stories and books on Regency Christmas traditions imprinted with her image and name. Blog posts and Tweets published over the past couple weeks attest to how the expansive community of Austen readers and writers reconstruct Austen’s holidays (Carlo Devito’s A Jane Austen Christmas), write holiday mysteries starring Jane Austen (Stephanie Barron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas), or collect Regency Era holiday decorations and traditions. New traditions have emerged alongside these engagements, such as 25 days of Pride and Prejudice, which Drunk Austen has rendered an occasion to laugh out loud as we take a break from our saturated email inbox. Whether it is through nostalgia or a desire to make merriment, ‘tis officially the season to honor Austen and her legacy.
Such a vibrant cultural phenomenon is, unfortunately, bound to attract the snake oil salesman. In an attempt to profit from the Austen holiday season, Hallmark, the American greeting card and TV enterprise, is producing TV movies which advertise as retellings of Austen’s work but do little more than poach novel titles and character names for ratings. Embellished with glossy lipstick and wrapped in screeching red and green coats, Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe (2018) and Christmas at Pemberley Manor (2018) appear benign ninety-minute holiday retellings of Pride and Prejudice. But, as Madeline Scully shows in our very first movie review, Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe’s misdeeds go well beyond its slapdash title. While pretending to champion workplace equality, it delivers a hollow message about service. Its attempts at a social justice message appear especially egregious in light of Hallmark’s decision to pull Zola’s same-sex marriage ads from the air this week. While some might urge us to write about other movies rather than promote the Hallmark Channel, our reviews of Hallmark movies are not an invitation to watch but to ponder what happens when Austen’s work is perceived as turning an easy profit in the era of cable and movie streaming.
Regulating who can and can’t engage Austen’s work is anathema to the welcoming spirit that defines the Jane Austen community of readers and writers. But when commercial enterprises like Hallmark, which cater to homophobic groups and self-appointed gatekeepers of traditional family values, co-opt Jane Austen, they perpetuate the misinformed yet popular view that Janeites promote a culture of normativity and whiteness. Our reviews push against this notion by calling out Hallmark’s facile engagements with Austen and exploring the nostalgic merriment of Emma (1996) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). We hope you’ll join us with a cup of peppermint tea or a gin and tonic–your choice!