Review/Meta: What Are We Searching For in Jane Austen?
I often find myself thinking of Michelle Dockery's words regarding the success of Downton Abbey: she theorized it was because everyone enjoys a decent period piece, but for the most part were forced to watch Jane Austen adaptations over and over again. Since the Nineties and the success of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle take on Pride and Prejudice, producers haven't been blind to the popularity of Austen novels or the money they make.
But what do you do when you've depleted the entire Jane Austen canon? And as a viewer, where do you turn if you're suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal and yet can't bring yourself to watch Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time?
The answer is what I'm going to call Jane Austen supplements. This is the material that isn't straightforward adaptations of her novels, but films and miniseries that are tangentially connected to her work, giving audiences all the trappings of a period drama without the predictability of plot. These related works are biopics, parodies and unofficial sequels, but having recently worked my way through them, I was struck by some of the common elements they all shared.
Jane Austen supplements expose the underlying and enduring appeal of this author, particularly in how she's now marketed to a modern audience. After watching seven of them (Death Comes to Pemberley, Lost in Austen, Austenland, Becoming Jane, Miss Austen Regrets, The Jane Austen Book Club and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) I was left with a theory as to what exactly people find so alluring about this particular subgenre, and what the writers/creators are specifically catering to when delivering them.
Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
I read P.D. James's novel last year, and I wasn't hugely impressed: it was an uncomfortable blend of a Pride and Prejudice sequel and a murder mystery, with neither having much to do with the other. If you read a sequel to any novel, it's with the expectation that you'll learn more about the characters and their continuing lives, but Death Comes to Pemberley is more concerned with the suspicious death of a young man and its effect on members of the Darcy, Bingley and Bennett families.
This three-part miniseries has the same problem: it's a murder mystery set in a Jane Austen novel, and no one quite seems to know which of these two elements they should focus on.
Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for some years, with a young son and a happy household. But on the eve of their annual ball a carriage pulls up in front of Pemberley, carrying a distraught Lydia Wickham who is convinced her husband has been shot. A search of the forested grounds finds the body of Wickham's friend Denny; an original book character so minor no one will care that he's been killed off here. Wickham is with him, covered in blood and wailing: "I killed him."
He's the obvious suspect, but not the only one. There are many strands of mystery at work, including the grieving father of a dead child, a jealous suitor vying for the hand of Georgiana, and rumours of a ghost in the woods. Elizabeth doubts Wickham's guilt, but knowing what she does about the ugly Darcy/Wickham history, she knows her marriage is at stake if she defends the man who tried to seduce her husband's sister.
It's a fairly loyal adaptation of P.D. James's novel, which in turn was faithful to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice. No one is written drastically out of character and there's solid continuity between this and what was laid down in Austen's manuscript.
At first I thought Matthew Goode would have been a better choice for Mr Darcy, but he makes a suitably foppish (and eventually desperate) Wickham. Eleanor Tomlinson embodies Georgiana's sweetness/shyness while Jenna Louise Colman manages Lydia's bratty pertness. She's the type of character who sees two people at odds and becomes irritated they're not amusing her, though she's eventually afforded a moment of self-awareness regarding Wickham's unfaithfulness and a display of sincere sisterly affection.
Unfortunately it's Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Darcy who feel horrendously miscast: not only much older than they should be at this time of their lives (they were twenty and twenty-eight respectively in Pride and Prejudice), but rather dour and grim – not to mention significantly shorter than everyone else around them. The complexity of their attraction is simplified into Darcy yelling at the servants and Elizabeth calming him with a droll remark, and though Anna Maxwell Martin can capture Elizabeth's intelligence, what's missing is her sparkle and wit.
Other additions are used to pad out the show's runtime: the Bingleys are switched out in favour of the Bennetts to provide comic relief, but unfortunately Rebecca Front's Mrs Bennett feels like she belongs in a completely different story (after all, Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners; whereas this is meant to be a gloomy murder mystery). Lady Catherine de Bough is given a pointless cameo (in which she seems to have lost most of her bite) and some marital tension is injected between Elizabeth and Darcy, presumably so it can be resolved with a reconciliatory sex scene. Okay, it's hardly explicit, but was it really necessary?
Elizabeth is also given a more active role in the resolution of the mystery, which is more than a little ludicrous when it involves her jumping onto the scaffold to deliver a signed confession moments before Wickham is due to be hanged.
It's a strange hybrid of a story, not quite one thing nor the other, which makes it all the more likely that the reason it was chosen for adaptation was due to its source of inspiration.
Lost in Austen (2008)
If Death Comes to Pemberley was a little strange, then Lost in Austen is downright bizarre. Amanda Price is a twenty-something woman who is completely obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. She's read it hundreds of times in an ongoing attempt to escape her humdrum lifestyle, until the night she walks into her bathroom and finds Elizabeth Bennett. She directs Amanda to the small door that brought her here, which leads back into Lougbourne and the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice.
There's no point in trying to find any literary "rules" behind this conceit. Has Amanda time-travelled? Is she in Jane Austen's head? How is any of this happening? Like the avian attacks in The Birds, we don't find out and we're not expected to ask. Just go with it. Amanda begins to integrate herself into the unfolding story of the Bennett family, knowing how events develop and what's meant to happen – but unfortunately, her meddling sends everything down a destructive trajectory.
Jane ends up married to Mr Collins, Mr Bingley becomes a drunkard who runs off with Lydia, and Mr Darcy proposes to Caroline Bingley. They also add in some new twists, such as an alternate interpretation of what happened between Georgiana/Wickham, the revelation that Miss Bingley is a lesbian, and a chance for almost every single character to fall in love with Amanda (including the aforementioned lesbian).
But perhaps the biggest narrative problem with Lost in Austen is that – having introduced its premise of a modern girl struck in an Austen novel – it keeps changing its mind on what the central conflict is. First it's getting the traditional couples mixed up, then it's Amanda scrambling to fix the damage she's done, then it's bluffing her way through an attempt by the Bennetts to visit her (non-existent) house in Hammersmith, then it's a desperate search for Elizabeth in the modern world.
For the most part it's trying to be a televised Fix-It Fic, only to keep introducing new obstacles and goals that have nothing to do with anything else that's come before.
As a protagonist Jemima Roper's Amanda comes across as rather crass and stupid; more a Bridget Jones than an Elizabeth Bennett. Even if we give her some leeway for her initial disorientation, you'd think someone so obsessed with Pride and Prejudice would be able to integrate herself a little more gracefully into the environment. Meanwhile Elliot Cowan plays Darcy not as Austen's character, but as our collective modern understanding of him: broody, moody, stand-offish and almost self-consciously dramatic. This is a guy who knows he's the leading man in a period film, and so behaves accordingly.
You need no further proof of this than when Amanda has him recreate the infamous "Colin Firth emerges soaking wet from a pond" scene, notable for two reasons: a) it never happened in Austen's novel, and b) it doesn't even happen in the way the 1995 miniseries depicts it. There we see Colin Firth dive into the water, and later walk back to the house in wet clothes. There is no money shot portraying him slowly and sexily rise from the pond itself.
Yet popular culture osmosis completely misremembers this scene. I trust I don't need to remind you of this monstrosity:
It's an odd duck. At the same time it glorifies the clothing and courtesy and culture of Austen's England (to the point where Amanda foregoes her old life and permanently enters this other world), it points out the double standards inherent in that society, from the subjugation of women to Amanda's best friend pointing out she can't follow her into the past because she's black (it's Hilarious in Hindsight considering the friend in question is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who would later star in Belle, a biopic about a mixed-race woman living with this exact problem).
There are some little historical tidbits here and there (Amanda learns how early 19th century women brushed their teeth) as well as some good quotes ("Endurance is the speciality of our sex", "I've never understood her as a character," "I am dressed as an adult"), and amazingly enough it captures the elegance of Austen's dialogue far better than Death Comes to Pemberley.
It just has no idea of what it wants to be.
As with Lost in Austen, Austenland is focuses on a woman (Keri Russell) so enraptured with Pride and Prejudice that it raises concern amongst her friends, especially when it culminates in the decision to spend her life savings on visiting a Jane Austen theme park. There the guests are invited to wear costumes, ride carriages, have dinner parties and interact with trained Regency actors.
Among these actors are Mr Henry Nobly (JJ Feild) and the stablehand Martin (Bret McKenzie), who form the requisite love triangle that conveniently ends when one of them undergoes random Derailing Love Interest syndrome. Which one she ends up with feels entirely irrelevant, even though it's the subplot that takes up the most screen-time.
Also like Lost in Austen, the story struggles to find a single conflict/goal, for the most part switching between Jane struggling to adapt to a 19th century setting, being stuck in the less exciting economy class (drabber clothes, fewer opportunities), and trying to figure out whether her love interests are sincere or just playing out their roles. There's also a dark little interlude in which she's sexually accosted by one of the hosts.
For the most part it's a totally harmless romantic comedy, though it's as shallow as a paddling pool and Jane is given no personality beyond loving Jane Austen and being desperate for a guy. Most of the laughs are derived from the insanely over-the-top performances of Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Ricky Whittle and Georgia King, each in hot competition to out-ham the others.
That said, there are nitpicks aplenty: like how the park's hostess is incredibly rude to Jane (though she's a paying customer), or how Jane smuggles in contraband (a cellphone) despite wanting to assimilate herself completely in the experience, or that as funny as Jennifer Coolidge's character is, she's also a stereotypical cougar who is implied to have sexually assaulted one of the male actors.
I trust it isn't too much of a spoiler to say that Mr Nobly is the Expy of Mr Darcy; a miserable bloke that doesn't want to be there but who eventually warms to the lukewarm charms of the protagoni – okay, I'm laying on the snark really thick here, but I honestly enjoyed this movie well enough. Suffice to say that it speaks volumes about what an Austen fan expects from their canon supplements, since it's entirely concerned with indulging the fantasies of one of them.
Becoming Jane (2007)
We know comparatively little about Jane Austen's life; her sister destroyed most of her letters and by all accounts she had a fairly uneventful life anyway. As far as we know she formed only two possible romantic attachments in her life: with Thomas Langlois Lefroy in her youth, and later with her brother's brother-in-law, Brook Edward Bridges. (There was also a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Witherin in 1802, which she accepted and then rejected the next day).
However, in both cases the evidence that she was in love with either man is very skimpy, relegated to a couple of ambiguously phrased passages in her letters. The great love of her life was her sister Cassandra, her confidant and best friend.
Unfortunately, we live in a world in which it's impossible for a film-maker to envision a biopic about a successful female author without shoehorning in a completely fabricated love story. Despite my irritation I suppose I can't blame them: when there's so little known about her life, and given she wrote so vividly about romantic longing, there's plenty of room for historical license and imagination to take over.
That said, a Jane Austen biopic can't follow the same trajectory as her books. Whatever romantic entanglements the screenwriters dream up for her, she must end her life unmarried.
Nearly the first words uttered in Becoming Jane are: "that girl needs a husband", which precipitates a film that's more interested in the invented love story between Jane and Tom Lefroy (who in real life probably just enjoyed a mild flirtation) than Jane's literary ambitions, taking her all the way to the brink of an elopement before reasserting historical accuracy.
The film depicts Jane as the typical Spirited Young Lady of period films (the black sheep of the family who writes in her nightgown with perfectly tousled hair and wanders dreamily though the woods) but also makes an effort to include real aspects of Jane's life: her deaf brother, a widowed aunt whose husband was guillotined in France, her penchant to read aloud to family members.
Perhaps the most notable conceit of the film is one that many literary biopics skew toward (a similar thing was done in Finding Neverland): having Jane's early life play out like one of her novels, with everyone around her a prototype for a book character. She's Elizabeth Bennett, her parents are Mr and Mrs Bennett, Cassandra is Jane Bennett, and Maggie Smith's Lady Gresham is Catherine de Bough (though in this case she's demanding a marriage rather than forbidding it). The film also introduces two other suitors I can't find any historical precedence for: a Mr Collins-esque friend of the family, and a wealthy young man who is not Bigg-Witherin that Jane rejects, accepts, then quietly rejects again.
There's an overheard insult, banter while dancing, and of course, Mr Darcy himself: a London man bored and irritated by country life, at least until he gets to know Lizzie – er, Jane. That said, Tom Lefroy is considerably less gentlemanly than Darcy; he's first seen boxing and whoring, and spends most of the early courtship mocking Jane's naivety with double-entendres – a tactic that clearly makes her uncomfortable and so feels more sleazy than endearing.
I've no idea why she falls in love with him, which really isn't something you should be feeling during a love story, but the experience naturally inspires her to become a better writer.
The film is at its best when it's exploring the issues of marriage, poverty and social expectations, and how each one relates to Jane (or at least the film's interpretation of Jane). Early on Mr Austen puts the impetus on her marry well by saying: "nothing crushes the spirit like poverty," and that Jane refuses to enter an engagement without love is regarded as selfish and arrogant by her mother. Later the struggle between duty and love is expanded to include the difficulties in being a woman novelist, in which a meeting with (a rather spaced-out) Mrs Radcliffe hints that marital bliss is impossible should Jane wish to truly hone her skills as a writer.
In the end it is the need for financial security that wins the day, and Jane puts an end to the elopement when she learns that Lefroy's extended family is reliant on the good grace of his uncle, who disapproves of the match. It's a self-sacrifice that neglects to take into account the implications of Mrs Radcliffe's conversation with Jane – although she goes on to assert that she'll support herself with her novels, it would have been a brave move if the film had shown Jane blatantly choosing her literary ambitions over domesticity.
Instead they naturally they can't resist going for the full-blown star-crossed lovers deal, and as such the story ends with a completely fictitious postscript in which Jane and Lefroy meet in middle age (in fact they never saw each other again after parting ways in 1796) and she's introduced to his daughter Jane. Now, it's true that Lefroy's eldest daughter was in fact called Jane, but given there were only about five popular names for women back then I don't think we should be reading that much into it.
Miss Austen Regrets (2007)
By a strange coincidence Miss Austen Regrets came out the same year as Becoming Jane, dealing with the tail-end of Jane Austen's life rather than its beginning, in which she looks back on the past and ponders the choices she's made. You can't really watch it as a direct continuation of the previous film; its tone and purpose is drastically different, and Tom Lefroy is mentioned only to be dismissed as a mild flirtation. Instead Miss Austen Regrets identifies Brook Edward Bridges as the potential love of Jane's life and the object of her lasting regret (as inherent in the title).
And yet there are several themes and lines of dialogue that make it a fitting bookend to Becoming Jane. Early on Jane's brother tells her: "if only you'd married," followed by her mother insisting: "rich is just another word for safe" – two sentiments that were delivered to a younger Jane by her parents in the previous film.
Drawn from Austen's letters and known events, the story is less "filmic" than Becoming Jane, which was happy to fabricate a love story between Jane and Tom and draw upon all the familiar romantic tropes in doing so. Miss Austen Regrets is more interested in capturing Jane's life and times as it was, without glamour or romanticism. As such, there's minimal makeup, no fancy outfits, and hair that looks real instead of glossy and coiffed.
There's even a scene in which Jane and her niece stop for a toilet break in the middle of a carriage ride. It involves squatting in the woods, which is definitely something we've never seen in any other Austen adaptation or supplement.
The drawback is that there's not a lot of plot to draw upon, and for its hour-and-a-half runtime the pacing is best described as leisurely. Not slow exactly, but certainly leisurely. Set twelve years after Jane rejects an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg-Witherin, she is called upon to vet a potential husband for her niece Fanny, who in turn is trying to glean answers from her aunt's novels.
Yet for the most part, it's content to explore the minutia of Jane's life, from book contracts to family illnesses to her historical visit to Carlton House, the august residence of the Prince Regent. There she met the royal librarian James Stanier Clarke, who encouraged her to dedicate her next book to the Prince (she did, despite hating the man).
But perhaps its best feature is something strangely missing from all other supplements: an actual understanding of Jane's novels. Early on Jane has this conversation with her brother and niece:
Fanny: What if I pass [the man I should marry] on the street and never know that he was the one?
Jane: And what if you do meet him, and he doesn't have any money?
Fanny: But if I loved him then nothing else would matter.
Jane: In heaven's name, what gave you that idea?
Fanny: Well, it says so in all of your books.
Edward: If that's what you think they say, my dear, perhaps you should read them again.
Later a perceptive reader tells her: "I was particularly entertained to notice that Lizzie Bennett only realizes she loves Mr Darcy when she sees how big his house is." There are other bits of original dialogue worthy of Austen's underlying message throughout her novels: that love is important, but not the only important thing when choosing an appropriate partner in marriage. It makes a rare change from the overwhelming romanticism of other adaptations, which consistently chose to miss the point entirely.
Ultimately it focuses on two key relationships: with her sister Cassandra and her niece Fanny, inserting the interesting implication that Cassandra sabotaged Jane's chances at marital life, just as Jane sort-of talks Fanny out of marrying Mr Plumptre. Played by Olivia Williams, Jane is depicted as flirty and mischievous; not just in the "spirited lady of Regency novels" sense, for they occasionally become character flaws. She teases a clergyman, gets tipsy at parties, grows jealous of her young niece – all traits that are treated as shortcomings by the narrative.
And she's melancholy. Let's face it, there's never going to be a biopic about a man whose central theme/inner conflict is his struggle between work and love, simply because a man's career is always depicted as the most important element of any biography, and women throughout history have been taught to exist as understanding helpmeets (any who isn't is subsequently treated as a shrew in dramatizations; see Johnny Cash's first wife in Walk the Line).
That said, I don't think it's inherently sexist that Miss Austen Regrets explores Jane's misgivings over foregoing the family life – after all, throughout most of history marriage has represented something fundamentally different to women (in regards to its responsibilities and expectations) than it has to men, and Jane's rejection of it was no doubt a source of much difficulty in her life.
But the film has Jane conclude that she was right to remain unmarried. Despite her concern over her mother and sister's welfare, she believes the demands of family life would have rendered her unable to write. But it comes at a price. For all her intelligence and wit she's regarded as an "old maid" by society and she's given the burden of financial responsibility when it comes to dependant family members.
Still, it's a price that she paid. And for all of this, it's a conversation with a servant that captures Jane Austen's enduring legacy – her gift was to give hope of love to other women, regardless of age or class or appearance, without knowing it herself.
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Here it is, the only Jane Austen supplement set entirely in the modern day (excepting the Austen theme park) in which five women and one man form a book club in order to read and discuss the works of Jane Austen. Each one is unhappy to some extent with his or her life – one's dog has just died, one is going through a divorce, one is pondering having an affair with a student – and so naturally each one projects all over the characters they're reading about.
Furthermore, each woman represents one of the Austen heroines, following the rough trajectory of each character's storyline: Sylvia is Fanny Price (in love with a man who doesn't love her back), Bernadette is Elizabeth Bennett (witty and confident), Allegra is Marianne Dashwood (quick to give her heart away), Prudie is Anne Elliot (out of touch with the man she loves), Jocelyn is Emma Dashwood (a matchmaker who doesn't see love right in front of her) and Grigg is ... um ... well, he reads Northanger Abbey. Maybe he's meant to embody Catherine's overactive imagination?
At least I think this is how the premise is structured; I'm going by the book each one is assigned to over the six months the club meets up. Without that feature, there's a good chance I would have missed the parallels completely. Being a movie, the discussions on Austen can't go into any great detail; instead the women (and Grigg) throw out a few brief insights and opinions before moving onto the next scene. Those that know their Austen will find the commentary enjoyable, though novice viewers don't have to have read a single word of her novels to follow the story.
In fact, there are a ton of references to pop culture and literature that have nothing to do with Jane Austen at all, particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the works of Ursula le Guin, with minor commentary on how sci-fi is for guys and Austen is for chicks (and how wrong this assumption is).
There are plenty of contrivances. Would you tell your wife about the affair you're having in the middle of a crowded restaurant? Would you start weeping about your incompetent husband to a complete stranger in the queue to a movie? Would you console a heartbroken woman in the same tone of voice you'd use to coax a child to eat vegetables?
But for all that, the film is pretty harmless. The actresses are all appealing enough, especially Kathy Baker, and it's fun to see a young Emily Blunt (who back in 2007, is billed after Marc Blucas) as a rather pretentious Jerkass Woobie.
Like hot chocolate, it's has no ambition other to be sweet and frothy – so naturally the accomplished and happily single woman HAS to find a man, and the multiple divorcee HAS to reveal her latest husband in the closing minutes, and the highly-strung woman with the incompatible partner HAS to be pregnant by the final scene, and the middle-aged mother HAS to reconcile with her cheating spouse. Everyone is neatly paired up by the time the credits roll, though I suppose we have the precedence set by Jane Austen to blame for that.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
I've already used the words "weird" and "bizarre" to describe two of these Jane Austen supplements – but this is something else entirely. The film is based on the parody abridgement of Pride and Prejudice by Seth Grahame-Smith, who simply took Jane Austen's original text and added zombies. These gruesome additions could have been grafted onto any famous novel, though I suspect Pride and Prejudice was chosen for the absurd contrast of polite 19th century society set against the bloody chaos of the zombie genre.
As such it has no literary merit whatsoever; it sheds no further insight into Austen's work at all; it's a joke that was funny for about a week before everyone lost interest. How it got as far as a big screen adaptation is a bit of a mystery, but here we are: Pride and Prejudice set in the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse.
For perhaps the first time we're introduced to Mr Darcy before Elizabeth, investigating a zombie infestation at a country estate but failing to contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Bennett sisters have been trained in martial arts, with Lizzie more interested in honing her skills than finding a husband. Both feel a bit miscast: Sam Riley is too short and needs a throat lozenge, and Lily James is ... well, Lily James. There's nothing to differentiate her take on Elizabeth Bennett from Rose MacClare, Natasha Rostova, or the latest Cinderella.
Furthermore, both of them are not so much playing Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth as they are pop culture's Darcy and Elizabeth: he's cold and awkward, and she's not interested in marriage at all (which is completely contrary to Austen's character, who knew that one way or the other marriage was an important part of her future). Their rapport isn't made up of hedged comments wrapped up in polite discourse, but full-blown squabbling and rudeness. They even manage the scene in which Darcy dives into a pond with all his clothes on.
So there's not much in the way of character; the two just repeat Austen's iconic lines without much weight and in considerable hurry. That said, it feels weird to critique any literary adaptation that has zombies deliberately strewn throughout it.
Matt Smith has fun as a broadly comedic Mr Collins, and Lena Headey pretty much steals the show as an eye-patched and leather-pants-wearing Catherine de Bough, who ends up a surprising ally by the end. Charles Dance does his thing as Mr Bennett, but unfortunately the Bennett girls are largely interchangeable – and the most Jane can muster up on seeing a zombie mother and her undead infant is a blank look and a flat: "merciful God, this cannot be."
The point (as mentioned earlier) of Grahame-Smith's book to derive humour from offsetting Austen's decorum and genteelness with the gore and violence of a zombie invasion – so the film is at its best when embracing this contrast, as when the Bennett girls enter a room in a well-ordered phalanx, cutting down zombies in slow-motion. This is also the first version of Pride and Prejudice that can portray Darcy's first proposal ending with Lizzie physically attacking him, a quite literal interpretation of what her words could only figuratively do in all previous interpretations.
But the film is ultimately more interested in zombies than Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Grahame-Smith's book adheres extremely closely to Austen's text, with the zombies thrown in almost as a background detail, the film veers into new territory at about the time Elizabeth should be visiting Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, instead introducing an apocalyptic climax and a subplot in which Wickham is a zombie sympathizer.
There's an odd addition in which Wickham takes Elizabeth to a church where zombies are given pig's blood as communion wine, which allows them to keep some semblance of their humanity. It ends up being a Chekhov's Gun when Darcy later creates a trap for Wickham by switching the blood for human brains (rendering them a mindless horde), which seems a rather morally dubious thing to do given the collective attempt by the zombies to maintain control over themselves – and I can't believe I'm writing this. I started this post as an exploration of Jane Austin supplements, and now I'm discussing the moral implications of switching pig's blood for human brains.
Long story short, it stops being Pride and Prejudice and becomes Zombies pretty quickly – which means it really could have been based on anything; a Regency story of any description. I wasn't even sure whether it should be included – but hey, we've come this far.
So what have we learned here? Jane Austen adaptations and supplements are a lucrative business, one that seemed to peak in 2007 – 2008, what with the release of four of the seven shows/films listed here, as well as The Jane Austen Season, in which new adaptations of her novels aired on ITV. Since then the craze has died down a little, but it's never completely gone away: 2016 saw the release of Love & Friendship, based on one of Austen's earliest and more obscure texts.
But what are people actually deriving from Jane Austen? Why is her work so popular that creators are willing to branch out and produce supplementary material to feed demand? Well, there are several common elements to the above supplements that provide some clues as to the enduring appeal of Austen (at least among her fans).
Could it be social commentary? From the perspective of the 21st century we look back on history with a mix of nostalgia and criticism, and when it comes to Austen, there's a heavy dose of Values Dissonance at work. If a teenage girl ran off with a much older man in this day and age, any decent family would do everything in their power to find her and remove her from his control. In Pride and Prejudice, it's never questioned that the Bennetts are desperate for Lydia to marry said man (who is clearly a sexual predator), lest her reputation and their respectability be destroyed. The narrative never questions for a moment that this is the right course of action to take.
Jane Austen wrote within the period in which her books are set; her views on the society around her come from the perspective of one who belonged to it. She had plenty to say about the social mores of her time, and had her fair share of ludicrous characters designed to be laughed at, but she was hardly a revolutionary. Despite poking at certain hypocrisies of her society, she was firmly entrenched within its belief system when it came to morality and social expectations.
But there's a chance for contemporary films to interrogate, cross-examine, or at least apply a level of critique to Austen's material that went unconsidered by the author. For example, the slave trade is only briefly mentioned in Mansfield Park, but expanded on considerably in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation.
But only occasionally does supplementary material chose to critically examine the Regency era. The two biographies do so mostly by necessity, as the plight of unmarried women and the burden of poverty were two states that defined Austen's life.
Surprisingly enough, Death Comes to Pemberley also turns a judgemental eye to the period, with commentary made by unsympathetic characters on the older Mr Darcy's lack of wisdom in raising Wickham above his station, and the class snobbery inherent in such a statement. Unfortunately, the attempt to draw a comparison with Elizabeth (she having been socially raised in a similar way by her husband) and her misgivings on her marriage fails. The literary Elizabeth was confident in her belief that as the daughter of a gentleman, she was Darcy's equal, whereas Wickham was the son of Darcy's steward.
But the show goes on to make a correlation that even P.D. James's novel doesn't: a deliberate parallel between Wickham and a poacher who was hanged several years prior, suggesting that both men were condemned to sentences that far outweighed the crimes they were accused of committing. The condemnation of capital punishment stands even after Wickham is saved from the scaffold at the last minute, as the other convicted prisoners are not so lucky, and their subsequent deaths depicted as unceremoniously cruel.
Finally, the show's closing minutes has Darcy decide that an illegitimate child born to a servant girl on the estate should not be sent away, and that the family must "look after their own" – another marked departure from James's novel that instead suggests a kinder, more modern outlook on life in the Darcy estate.
Though Lost in Austen plays out with a highly comedic tone, Amanda Price pays lip-service to some of the constrictions of the 19th century, with a running theme being her mounting frustration at other characters' inability to be forward with each other. On the other hand, Jane's misadventures in Austenland are based more on the frustrating (and entirely modern) behaviour of her fellow guests.
With these few exceptions, all the supplements embrace the world they depict, with Amanda even going so far as to abandon the real world for the ... er ... past? Fictional realm? Parallel universe? Whatever the heck Lost in Austen creates for her, she ends up ditching modern life and going to life there permanently.
So the popularity of Austen and her world is not an interest in its historical context. So what else could it be?
Let's say the aesthetic, which goes hand in hand with escapism. Though the supplements occasionally provide a hat tip to the injustices and social anxieties of the period, they're more often than not happy to luxuriate in its physical trappings – at least those of the upper classes. Death Comes to Pemberleyrevels in the wealth and opulence of its setting, with tracking shots through the great halls of Pemberley and focus on the multitude of staff that works within its walls.
Amidst it all, Elizabeth is queen, a benevolent and beloved ruler who gives orders and accepts gratitude, a stand-in for any Pride and Prejudice fan who wants to see their heroine enjoy the perks of an advantageous marriage to a wealthy man.
The two biographies attempt to paint a slightly more realistic view of the 19th century; in a sense they have to considering Jane's life was defined by fear of poverty and perpetual spinsterhood – yet there's still plenty of attention given to the dresses, the dances, the courtly manners, the panelled drawing rooms, with sweeping shots of candlelit rooms, expansive gardens, architectural splendour and woodland walks; all depicting a serene and beautiful world.
Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies spends time on montages of the Bennett girls dressing and doing their hair, with the saturated colours of their gowns often deliberately contrasted with the horror of their situation. The trailers in particular extensively used the scene in which the sisters strap daggers to their thighs, the silks of their gowns flowing over them in slow motion.
Part of this general aesthetic might also include the casting choices that exist across Austen adaptations and supplements. Granted, this could have something to do with the small pool of actors in the UK, but there's an intriguing amount of crossover at work: Anna Maxwell Martin plays Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane and Elizabeth Bennett in Death Comes to Pemberley. Jack Huston is Charles Haden in Miss Austen Regrets and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Hugh Bonneville is Mr Bennett in Lost in Austen and Brook Edward Bridges in Miss Austen Regrets.
Furthermore, as well as Jane Austen herself in Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams has also played Miss Fairfax in 1996's Emma, while JJ Feild is Mr Nobly in Austenland and Mr Tilney in 2007's Northanger Abbey. And (having mentioned its relationship to Austen at the start of this post) it's a matter of what Austen-related actors HAVEN'T been in Downton Abbey than have, a show that in many ways was built on the enduring popularity of period dramas exemplified by Austen's work.
There would seem to be a "type" when it comes to casting these shows, all of which adds to the general feel of the subgenre.
But it's when we get to the three modern day films that things start to take a deliberate turn for the meta. With these, screenwriters can have their characters explicitly state what it is people want when reaching for Jane Austen.
As it happens, The Jane Austen Book Club is the only film of the three that does not involve any kind of period setting (whereas Austenland and Lost in Austen take their time in letting the camera drift over the costumes/architectural porn). It does however play its opening credits over a montage of modern day annoyances: traffic jams, parking tickets, cell phones going off, store security alarms being triggered – all the noise and frustration of day-to-day life deliberately contrasted with the peace and serenity of an Austen novel, which is discussed with friends on porches and in living rooms, with wine and nibbles within arm's reach.
As Bernadette puts it, Austen's novels are: "the perfect antidote to life." It's a sentiment that's echoed almost exactly in the words of a house servant in Miss Austen Regrets, who tells Jane: "love still dies, and money still vanishes, and every woman: spinster, wife, widow – every woman has regrets. So we read about your heroines, and feel young again – and in love, and full of hope, as if we can make that choice again."
It's the act of escaping that appeals to the book club, even as the film goes on to draw deliberate parallels between their characters and Austen's heroines.
But with this motivation in mind, it's with Lost in Austen's Amanda and Austenland's Jane that things get really interesting. Both women are given the chance to physically escape into Austen's world (or at least an imaginary version of it), making them blatant place-holders for viewers who secretly long to do something similar. In each case, they get the chance to explain what the appeal is, which expands on Bernadette's comment that Austen is an antidote to life.
As Amanda says to her mother: "I'm not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button and Colin Firth in clingy pants, okay? I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and the language and the courtesy. It's become part of who I am and what I want. I'm saying mum, that I have standards."
Compare this to Jane Seymour's opening speech in Austenland: "What separates the casual Jane Austen fan from the aficionado? Is it her admiration for the style and manners of the Regency era? The number of times she's read Austen's novels? Or her consuming love for Mr Darcy?"
(Remember that last question, as we'll get back to it later).
One speech is defensive and the other humorous, but they each capture an uncertain attitude inherent in each film: whether the protagonist – and by extension, Jane Austen fans – should be regarded with affection or scorn. Everyone in Amanda's life, from her mother to her neighbour to her terrible boyfriend (who proposes while drunk with a soft-drink tab for a ring) thinks she's borderline psychotic for her interest in Pride and Prejudice, urging her to lower her expectations and settle down. The very fact that Amanda has to constantly defend her love of a book that she believes enriches her life speaks for itself.
Jane in Austenland gets it even worse. The film opens with montage of her life designed to showcase her Austen obsession as sad and pathetic: her bedroom looks like a child's dollhouse, she kisses a Colin Firth cut-out after her boyfriend walks out, and her best friend seems only to exist in order to berate and criticise her passion. (As it happens, this friend is visibly pregnant, seemingly for no other reason than to indicate she's more "ahead" in life than Jane).
It all makes for an odd mental dissonance: that the very women to whom this material is aimed at are portrayed as pathetic losers on the screen; the screenwriters clearly unsure whether to ridicule or indulge their obsession. Ironically, though Amanda seems to have a greater grasp of the difference between reality and fiction than Jane when it comes to her defence of Pride and Prejudice, the show eventually rewards her with Mr Darcy, going so far as to leave Elizabeth in the modern world so that Amanda can claim him for herself (blasphemy!)
Jane on the other hand becomes so disoriented by the blurred line between reality and the actors/setting of Austenland that Mr Nobly has to spell things out for her in a monologue that connects the themes of reality and fantasy (and gets in one final jab at women who visit Austen theme parks): "I used to think my aunt's profession was somewhat grotesque, but the truth is, I enjoyed stepping into history. The idea of a simpler world where love is straightforward and lasting. I believe we have that in common... neither one of us are capable of pretending. The night of the ball you said you wanted something real. I like to believe I am real... Jane, you are my fantasy."
Ultimately, Lost in Austen is kinder to Amanda than Austenland is to Jane; the former gets to forego the real world and embrace the fantasy, whereas Jane is sent home in disillusionment, dismantling her Austen paraphernalia and accepting reality.
The books might embody escapism to their readers, but the message that shines through in the films – whether it be Jane Austen leaving Tom Lefroy in Becoming Jane or Jane returning with Henry in "civilian clothes" to Austenland (which has been transformed into a hideously tacky amusement park under Elizabeth Charming's management) after relinquishing her fantasy world, is that Reality Ensues sooner or later, and that women are ridiculous if they cling too long to their fantasy worlds.
But when the story ends, what does that reality encompass? What are all these women searching for, both in their love of Austen and in the real world? Simply: a man. Specifically: a Mr Darcy.
So the third component is romance. There's no doubt that love and marriage is a fundamental part of all Austen's novels: each protagonist is a young Regency women, so how could they not be? It was considered a woman's duty in life, and every one of her books involves a courtship and concludes with a wedding.
Yet they're not just about romance. They're about families, about poking fun at certain social mores, about the battle of the sexes, and about young women navigating the dangerous waters of society – though you wouldn't know that from watching any of the supplements, which in most cases puts romance front and centre.
Death Comes to Pemberley adds marital strife to Darcy and Elizabeth, as well as a love triangle for Georgiana, Lost in Austen is essentially Amanda's quest for Mr Darcy (even if it means throwing away Elizabeth), all the women in The Jane Austen Book Club are eventually paired off (except the lesbian) and though the biographies naturally cannot have Jane marry (though Miss Austen Regrets has Fanny's husband-hunting as a significant subplot) each one depicts Jane Austen having romantic feelings toward a man that she may or may not have had in real life.
Then there's Austenland, which is totally preoccupied with Jane's love life, to the point where her defining love of Austen's books fades from the focus so the film can become a generic romantic comedy (Austenland could just as easily be Bronteville or Gaskellworld for all the difference it makes). An early scene has Jane being hit on by a slimy co-worker who negs her about her age, and later the love triangle with Mr Nobly and Martin the stable-hand monopolises the runtime. One of my notes on watching for the first time was: "do any of these people actually LIKE Jane Austen's books?" as throughout the film the content of Austen's novels are barely mentioned.
Instead, Jane's fellow guests Amelia Hartwright and Elizabeth Charming are motivated solely by man-hunting. Heck, when Jane meets Elizabeth for the first time and enthusiastically tells her: "I memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen," Elizabeth's response is a baffled: "What's that?"
Yet despite the supplementary focus on romance, Jane Austen was by no means a romantic. She had very serious and important advice to convey to her young readers. Marriage is the most important decision you'll ever make, so take it seriously. Don't make mercenary decisions, but don't disregard the advantages of money and status. Trust your instincts, but don't judge too quickly. Be sensible, and don't get carried away by charmers.
Reading these books in the 19th century was a very different experience from reading them today, and by our modern standards the need for a woman to get hitched is significantly less important than it was back then. Yet the supplements forego Austen's serious advice in exchange for shameless romanticism. Only Miss Austen Regrets comes close to the truth of things, an understanding of the line between fantasy and realism, in which Jane tells her young niece: "The only way to get a man like Mr. Darcy is to make him up."
And that's the clincher; the paradox that lies at the heart of Jane Austen: author, novels, adaptations and supplements alike. They're love stories written by a woman who never married, novels firmly grounded in reality which are treated like escapist fantasies, portraits of a difficult and restrictive world that so many female readers are desperate to return to.
And so we are catered to: with spin-offs and parodies and biopics, creating an on-going demand for Austen-esque material that continues to this day. Whatever the secret formula behind Austen's success, it's as potent as it ever was.