Austen power

by Jane Clifton / 27 December, 2008
Almost 200 years after Jane Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, new versions still keep rolling off the presses. Its latest controversial TV incarnation, Lost in Austen, looks likely to be as popular as the original.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that were Jane Austen alive today, she would be in want of absolutely nothing.

She'd probably be richer than JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined.

Her book royalties alone could buy her a Pemberley on every continent, and with the film and television royalties to boot, her spinster status would be seriously under threat.

And think of the merchandising. Austen-mania - practised by Jane-ites, as many devotees like to be known - has grown over the past 20 years to something transcending the Trekkie movement, and it's only through the lack of a live Jane to whom copyright might accrue that it hasn't become a billion-dollar franchise. Lizzie Bennet dress-up dolls, Mr Darcy action figures, Lady Catherine de Bourgh Halloween costumes and Naughty Lydia pencil cases might all be rolling out of Weta Workshop right now.

Lack of copyright restriction has meant, of course, that those chasing the Jane-ite dollar can really go to town in their adaptations, and in the even more numerous spin-off sequels, prequels and riffs on her six completed books. The latest, most controversial liberty taken with Miss Austen's repertoire, which screens on TV1 this week, is Lost in Austen. Its main premise is that if Jane can't come to us, then we can go to her. And interfere.

The story of a modern young woman, Amanda Price, who, dissatisfied with her dreary job and her lummox of a boyfriend, finds constant solace in the novels of Austen, hardly sounds offensive. But her finding Miss Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom one morning, and discovering that her shower cubicle is a time-space portal to Longbourn, through which Amanda goes and takes Lizzie's place, did discompose Austen purists.

Amanda spends quite a bit of the story wearing her modern London trousers, and even when decently decked out in Lizzie's frocks, refuses to "dress" her hair - a sleek modern bob.

It's this "eff-off" hair, together with those peculiar breeches and her constant blurting - Austen's words "pert" and "forthright" just won't cover this - that makes Amanda unpalatable to most of the characters most of the time. But as she is the absent Lizzie's friend, vouchsafed to them by Lizzie for their hospitality, Austenian manners dictate they must politely overlook her atrocities and continue to host her.

Naturally, her disturbing presence throws the whole story out of kilter. Meaning well, and trying increasingly desperately to implement the story as originally written, Amanda makes things steadily worse as the programme continues. Some of the wrong characters become engaged, and the personalities and backstories of other characters warp and morph. To give a taste of just how shocking a turn things take, Mrs Bennet graduates from histrionics to hissing near-violence; Mr Bennet gives up the ghost and lies about sulking; Mr Bingley takes to the drink. Much more I mustn't say, for fear of spoiling viewers' fun. But I can't resist adding that Lizzie is meanwhile having a most agreeable time in modern-day London, has had an urchin cut and become a nanny, and declines to come back and sort things out.

And it's not at all giving the plot away to say that in a most unwonted - but to a Jane-ite audience utterly mandatory - development, Mr Darcy falls in love with Amanda. Well, he would, wouldn't he?

Lost in Austen is as much a romp as a homage to Pride and Prejudice, and will doubtless chew up the ratings figures here.

Overseas, the Jane-ites seem to have warmed to Lost in Austen, which most reviewers found charming. Even the purists now seem to recognise the appetite for Austen must be fed - and not just because there's a buck in it.

Like Amanda in this story, many women get tremendous emotional support from Austen's spry wisdom and sly satire, as well as from the Mills & Boonish happily ever after.

The Austen craze - if that's quite the word for something so enduring - has engendered cynicism. The best-selling novel The Jane Austen Book Club - a sort of How to Make an American Quilt, only about Jane Austen readers - hit the tipping point of tolerance for Jane-mania in some quarters. In its online review of the movie made of the novel, the Daily Mirror said: "Heavily marinated in oestrogen, this is aimed at middle-aged females, the more unhappily married the better, with the cardiganed cast spending much of the running time drinking tea on the veranda and moaning about men over their knitting."

The Daily Telegraph's Tim Robey said the Jane Austen Book Club was "a distinctive vision of hell ... a plane of being where there are only six novels that matter, and ... there's no relationship crisis that Jane can't solve".

Which goes to show that, by and large, men are a little less likely to "get" Austen than women, and that, logically speaking, Austen fever is more likely to hit women, particularly Women of a Certain Age, than men.

Blessedly, no one has written Jane Is a Feminist Issue yet, but academics have explored exhaustively Austen's proto-feminist prescience. Between the lines, she delicately deplores the iniquitous helplessness of young women forced to wed for security. Charlotte, who happily agrees to marry the egregious Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, is nevertheless the object of the heroine's great pity. And by extension, the readers' and most particularly the author's.

In Emma, the impoverished, clamorous spinster Miss Bates is pointedly absolved from being a figure of fun when Mr Knightley lectures Emma about how, through no fault or ill-character of her own, she has fallen on hard times from a great height of gentility, and deserves respect and sympathy that she would never seek.

A number of Austen's men are rash, feckless and even callous. Mr Darcy famously indulges his bigotry against those he sees as common and money-chasing, and nice-as-pie Mr Bingley allows this opinion to override his own judgment. We have to forgive them before we can love them.

But Austen was no man-hater. Many of her women are unspeakable, too. Caroline Bingley (how came she to have such an uncommonly agreeable brother?); Mrs Bennet is as silly as 10 chooks; Lady Catherine, a mean-minded martinet; and in Emma, the gauchely snobby Mrs Elton has been enough to put some of us off summer picnics with strawberries and cream, so foully did she behave at one.

One liberating thing for Austen fans about Lost In Austen is sex. Not, let's hastily specify, that we see any. But Amanda, being sexually liberated, is free to express her attraction for Austen's men in a way Austen's women would never have contemplated. To put it mildly, Amanda plants the odd smacker on a bloke in a most bold fashion. But it makes you think how very odd it is that we infer smouldering passion and aching longing from books in which the author never writes directly of physical attraction, nor even much of physical appearance. A girl was either of pleasing countenance, or she was somewhat ill-favoured. A chap was either of pleasing aspect, or an imposing figure, or his physicality wasn't mentioned.

Yet what a modern sensibility can glean from between the lines is positively steamy. We instinctively know who has sex appeal - which characters are not just pretty or handsome, but alluring and charismatic.

It was a colossal liberty in the 1995 television adaptation, having Mr Darcy emerge wet and manly from a dip in the lake, his clothes clinging everywhere a woman might be interested in seeing a little definition. But it did it for most of us. Especially for Lizzie, who - sorry, Jane, but modern audiences need gals to be a bit knowing - stood enraptured and getting a good eyeful.

Poor old Colin Firth has become the all-time prototype Mr Darcy, being sent up for this in both Bridget Jones's Diary, and Mamma Mia.

In a Parkinson interview - screened here on UKTV last Sunday - Firth recounted how perplexed his Italian in-laws were to be told that Firth/Mr Darcy were British sex symbols. So the English find self-repression sexy, they marvelled.

Well, yes, it is a peculiar Anglo-Saxon thing. But you could also argue that seeing more of that repression in its glory for a change was a big post-feminist moment. In the wet Mr Darcy, women finally had their equivalent of the celebrated scene when Ursula Andress steps dripping in near-undress from the sea in Dr No in 1962.

We are now officially allowed to think Lizzie found Mr Darcy physically attractive - that the pair of them didn't, as in a literal interpretation of the book, fall in love with each other's noble characters alone.

And when you look at the costumes of the day, Austen's were extensively physically on display, much more so than the women. Although the women's gowns had a degree of décolletage, the empire line engulfed rather than articulated a woman's shape. No wonder they got very excited about bonnets and trims. The men, in contrast, wore tight breeches, boots and shaped tailed jackets, designed to exaggerate the ideal male inverted triangle shape - broad shoulders, elegant waist, finished off with a nicely muscled thigh and calf.

What woman of any age could help but say "phwoah!"

However, further adaptations of Austen have, by some lights, taken the knowingness a bit far, none more so than the 1999 iteration of Mansfield Park, which featured actual shagging, among other hide-face-behind-fan moments. "My agenda, my strategy had been to sprinkle fact throughout this fiction and bring out some more of the biographical information of Austen's," said the director, Canadian Patricia Rozema, at the time. She has specialised in edgy lesbian romance movies such as I've Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Falls, and her Mansfield Park not only read between the lines for spice, but inserted a bit of extra frisson (although there wasn't, Jane-ites must have been relieved to find, any actual Sapphic activity). The heroine, Fanny Price, walked in on two lesser characters in flagrante during a period in which there was something approaching orgiastic behaviour in the household of Mansfield Park, which I certainly don't remember from the book.

Sir Thomas (played by Harold Pinter, no less) was represented quite openly as a slaver, with poor Fanny coming upon harrowing depictions of tortured Africans. And Lady Bertram was unabashedly shown abusing opiates, not being a dull-witted eccentric with some unspecified illness as when I last read the book, but a Regency version of a very far-gone stoner in a family of heedless enablers.

But, with Frances O'Conner opposite Johnny Lee Miller, it was still an enjoyable movie. It had Essence of Jane - the good of heart and character triumphing over the selfish and vain and electively ignorant. And if a little lurid, this Mansfield Park did make you wonder how much more frankly and literally La Austen would be writing had she been born a few generations later, into more permissive times - or whether she would have decided her more oblique style was more effective.

The social mores of her era obliged her to pull her punches, obviously, but it is clear she knew about the dark side of the world. There's even been a book written about her knowingness - Jane Austen and Crime, by Susannah Fullerton - which elaborates her demonstrable familiarity with gambling, adultery, elopement, poaching and even murder.

Were Jane Austen transported to us through a portal in someone's shower cubicle, she'd not only be very rich, but very, very surprised.

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