Lost in Austen, a four-part British television series first broadcast by ITV in September 2008, scripted by Guy Andrews and directed by Dan Zeff, is one of the most rewarding “spin-offs” or “appropriations” of Jane Austen’s work. It is not just a clever parody of Austen-based period costume drama, such as Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC miniseries, directed by Simon Langton and featuring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, but also a deconstructive reading of Pride and Prejudice. Its script is recognizably “Austenesque,” and the setting and costuming appear to be historically warranted: historical adviser for the series was the expert Jenny Uglow. As has been pointed out by Laurie Kaplan, this “reverence for authenticity” is part of what is nowadays more or less expected by Austen aficionados, but here it is juxtaposed with what she calls “irreverent realism” (245). In this paper I will demonstrate how by subtle adaptations of Jane Austen’s plot, characters, and style, Andrews presents us with a postmodern, ultimately liberating comment on Georgian conventions—as well as on some current ones.
Lost in Austen opens with a voiceover of its protagonist, twenty-six-year-old Amanda Price from Hammersmith, played by Jemima Rooper:
It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape. I escape always to my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it so many times now, the words just say themselves in my head, and it’s like a window opening. It’s like I’m actually there. It’s become a place I know so intimately. I can see that world. I can touch it.
Starting her narrative with the same famous words that open Pride and Prejudice, Amanda generalizes her private feelings about the desirability of escape. Furthermore, we soon realize that the universality of “a single man in possession of a good fortune” being necessarily “in want of a wife” is in the first place individual wishful thinking on the part of Mrs. Bennet as a mother of five marriageable daughters (3). Of course, just as in Jane Austen’s days more than one mother had to address this issue, the present-day desire for “escape” may be assumed to afflict not just Amanda. For her, as perhaps for other young women in a similar condition, Austen’s Regency novel is a means of escape from an uninspiring job, an unromantic and boorish boyfriend, and a disillusioned (divorced) mother’s despondent views on love and relationships. Amanda literally escapes into the world of the novel when she discovers that her admired heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, has opened a “portal” between Longbourn and the bathroom Amanda shares with her flatmate. As Lizzie disappears into twenty-first-century London, Amanda finds herself immersed in the “reality” of Longbourn around 1800.
Alice Ridout and Jessica Cox place these escapist aspects of Lost in Austen in a post-feminist context. Cox in particular examines the series as “a critique of the achievements of feminism” (37). In her view Amanda’s desire to escape “hints at the falsity of the notion of women ‘having it all’ and raises significant questions about the appeal of not only pre-feminist texts such as Austen’s novel, but also the period costume dramas and romantic comedies which persist in adapting many of the conventions of those texts (particularly, marriage as a woman’s ultimate destiny and central to a sense of fulfilment)” (38). Finding herself “trapped” in the world of “Georgian England,” Amanda is said both to represent “the notion of limited power of the modern woman . . . , who seemingly exerts total control only over her appearance,” and to echo “the experiences of the socially and legally disenfranchised nineteenth-century woman” (43). Amanda is “dissatisfied and disillusioned with her life in post-feminist Britain,” but at the same time “the world of Pride and Prejudice is not the romantic fantasy she imagined: the pre-feminist past is as problematic in terms of the role of women as the modern world” (47). In this light, the “inevitable romantic conclusion” of the series—Amanda’s “eventual decision to remain in the world of Pride and Prejudice”—is understandably found to be problematic (48).
What Cox seems to overlook here is the fact that Amanda does not so much penetrate “the world of Pride and Prejudice” as enter a twenty-first-century version of Georgian England. This version is reminiscent of but subtly different from the world as sketched by Jane Austen from her own immediate experience. In the words of Australian reviewer Ruth Starke, “all the key scenes from the novel are here: Jane’s enforced stay at Netherfield and Miss Bingley’s bitchery; the Netherfield ball; Mr. Collins’ proposals; the entertainments at Rosings; the visit to Pemberley; the scandalous elopement; and the ultimatum of Lady Catherine. . . . Just not exactly as you remember them” (2, my emphasis). The main distinction is that Lizzie’s role in the novel is filled by Amanda, who soon discovers that the “reality” of life in Georgian England is going to be hard work rather than romantic escape. I would also agree with Kaplan, who defines Lost in Austen as “a rich intertextual document that comments on such issues as love, kindness, trust, female friendship, feminine desire, and personal and social anxiety” (243), adding: “The absurd juxtapositions of contemporary cultural artefacts—cell phones, cigarettes, and lip gloss, for example—with the well-known images and themes of Jane Austen’s novels—stately homes, rituals of courtesy and courtship, and elaborate Regency costumes—provide comic fodder for an exploration of what Austen’s classic plot means in today’s world” (244). It is indeed this constant juxtaposition of recognizable themes and patterns from Jane Austen’s novel with a modern young woman’s uncomfortable immersion in a postmodern reanimation of that world that provides us with a deconstructive leverage that works both ways, the ambiguity of the “achievements of feminism” from both a post-feminist and a pre-feminist perspective noted by Cox being only one instance.
How well do we really know the characters originally created by Jane Austen? When Amanda makes her first acquaintance with Mr. Bennet (Hugh Bonneville), he introduces himself as “Elizabeth’s father, Claude Bennet,” to which Amanda reacts (as any “Janeite” probably would) by exclaiming, “Claude? You’re kidding!” This scene is indeed hilarious, but even attentive readers of Pride and Prejudice may suddenly realize that Austen does not actually ever give us his first name. In fact, Mr. Bennet’s is only one instance of a married man’s “forename” of which she does not inform her readers (Mullan 40). In a sense, by providing him with a first name (however unlikely a one in a Georgian context), Andrews has made father Bennet more human. In the same scene he refers to Charles Bingley as a “pleasant enough fellow. Not strong on brains.” For readers of Pride and Prejudice this qualification may well have come to mind as a shrewd characterization of this rather irresolute young man and as something his future father-in-law might well have thought, but never put into words. It tells us something about Mr. Bennet as an observant as well as a fair-minded man. Paige Pinto remarks that Amanda “is the quintessential modern Austen fan, both reader and adapter.” We may be led through a similar process of recognition and interpretation.
Due to Amanda’s well-intended but often counter-productive interference, things soon start to develop very differently from the way this “oracular” young woman, as Jane Bennet calls her, “knows” the story should go. I would characterize the way in which Amanda is made to meddle with Austen’s plot as a continuous form of deconstruction and reanimation. Priding herself on knowing her favorite novel from cover to cover, Amanda does not really have a clue about the conventions of Georgian society (cf. Cox 43)—and neither, of course, do we, even if we are historians. All we know is what Austen tells us in her novels, combined with what we have been given to see as viewers of Regency costume drama. Amanda also does not know, as indeed readers of the novel can only surmise, what goes on “between the lines” and what could possibly drive characters depicted in fiction. As readers of the novels, we are not generally bothered by these limitations, but we now realize that perhaps we should be. As Amanda puts it at one stage, addressing Caroline Bingley, “You people. If just one of you actually said or did something you actually meant, that had any kind of emotional integrity, the rest of you would die of fright” (episode 3).
Following Guy Andrews’s script, we gradually discover that “Claude” Bennet hides more sadness as well as true affection behind his cynicism than is divulged by Austen. We can see that he has an interest in astronomy, and he has been given some wistful as well as insightful remarks. Early on in the first episode he tells Amanda, “When Lizzy was ten years old, I taught her to fly a kite. She soon mastered it. She stood between my arms in front of me and took the strain. I believe she has taken it ever since.” His final words to Lizzy, who has expressed her wish to return to (twenty-first-century) Hammersmith, are: “I cannot cling to you all my life, Lizzy. I am dressed as an adult. Sooner or later I will have to comport myself as one. The time has come for me to tie you well—and let you go.” At the same time, he remains properly Austenesque, as when he reacts to his wife’s lamentation that “it vexes me exceptionally that Elizabeth should be abroad at such a time as this. And at Hammersmith, Mr. Bennet.” He replies: “I was not aware it was abroad, my dear, but I salute your superior command of geography” (episode 1).
Andrews’s Mrs. Bennet will turn out to be less silly and more understandably venomous than Austen’s, and his Jane more frustrated, Mary more sensible, Kitty more pleasant, and Lydia (who remains unmarried) more worldly-wise than they are presented in the novel. As to divergent plot events, Jane is in love with Charles Bingley, but out of consideration for her mother first marries Mr. Collins (temporarily, that is, because Lady Catherine de Bourgh later annuls the marriage on the grounds of non-consummation); lonely and pious Charlotte Lucas ends as an African missionary. Charles Bingley initially falls in love with Amanda, but she tells him that she is “drawn to other women” and pushes him onto Jane. When his engagement to the latter is thwarted by Jane’s sacrificing herself to Mr. Collins, Bingley turns to drink, runs off with Lydia Bennet, and wounds her father in a fight. We trust Bingley, however, when he assures Mr. Bennet that the absconding couple has only “spent the hours philosophizing” rather than “making the beast with two backs” (episode 4).
This philosophical abstinence as well as the non-consummation of the marriage between Mr. Collins and Jane can be read as elements in the deconstruction of what John Mullan calls the “sexual coding” in Austen’s novels: “Austen does require her reader to think about sex,” referring to Lydia’s being called “stout” after she has spent almost a month with Wickham, who is said to gradually lose his “affection” for her (163). Mullan adds that “Mr. Bennet’s choice of Mrs. Bennet has also been sensually determined” and that the Bennets “carried on an active sex life well into middle age” (169). In Lost in Austen, it is Georgiana Darcy who is “sexually precocious” (Kaplan 247); Mr. Darcy, who initially does not “float” Amanda’s “boat,” as she freely confesses to Jane in a conventional but here deconstructed bedroom scene, ultimately overlooks his earlier objection to her not being a “maid.” Starke describes Jemima Rooper playing Amanda as “what the French call jolie laide,” adding that she “exudes sex appeal” (2). In this sense, she resembles Keira Knightley as Elizabeth in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice rather than the more restrained Jennifer Ehle.
Towards the end of episode 3, Caroline Bingley reveals herself to Amanda, who refers to her as “Frosty-Knickers,” as what her brother calls one of those “ladies who steer the punt from the Cambridge end,”1 and what Caroline herself circumscribes as being touched by the music of Sappho’s poetry, although she admits, “I have yet to play upon the, erm, instrument myself.” In the second episode, Amanda had already given voice to what may well have occurred to many readers of the novel: “I’ve never understood her as a character.” George Wickham, rather than being the seducing villain of the piece, turns out to be Amanda’s sly-witted savior, buying her a silk dress and teaching her the manners of Georgian society after she has been dismissed by Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Darcy’s adolescent sister, Georgiana, who in the novel Wickham had tried to seduce, has a very different story to tell about this affair: it was she who had “offered [her]self to” him—rather as Mary Godwin (initially) did to Shelley, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont to Lord Byron.
Fitzwilliam Darcy himself, played by Elliot Cowan, who occasionally out-Colin-Firths Colin Firth, indulges in Oscar Wildean bon mots. His very first words in the series are: “A gentleman knows God believes in him. It is his duty to return the compliment.” Guy Andrews’s Darcy is as politely arrogant as Austen’s, but he is also less shy and more eccentric, as well as more expressive. When Amanda accuses him of being “a total git” for warning Bingley off Jane, revealing that she herself has “been in love with [his] life for fourteen years,” he bluntly tells her that he despises “the intrusions of a woman so singularly dedicated to mendacity, disorder, and lewdness” and calls her a repellent “abomination.” He does, in other words, say something he actually means.
Just as in the novel, it takes a while for the main couple in Lost in Austen to obtain insight into their own and each other’s pride and prejudice, and to finally come together. An important stage in this development is a scene in the third episode where Amanda, visiting Rosings under false pretenses, impresses Darcy with her magnanimity. Having inadvertently uttered the word “bum-face” aloud (referring to Caroline Bingley, who is after Darcy for the sake of appearances), Amanda first saves the situation by explaining to Lady Catherine (Lindsay Duncan) that it is the name of a card game, which she then proceeds to teach the company, making up the rules as they play. When Bingley threatens to lose his heirloom watch as a proffered stake, Amanda says that she should have made it clear that it was only a practice game, so that there are no winners and losers: “Darcy notes Amanda’s kindness in intervening when the more rapacious characters want to pocket all the coins, and his transformation seems to begin at this point” (Kaplan 252). Soon afterwards Darcy admits to Amanda that he was wrong about Charles and Jane, and he invites her to Pemberley, together with Mrs. Bennet and Lydia.
It is thus too simple to argue that “the process by which Darcy comes to revise his opinion of Amanda is unclear (and thus unconvincing),” because “the viewer is asked to . . . accept that Darcy would offer marriage to a woman who behaves in the manner so contrary to that expected from a nineteenth-century woman” (Cox 46). Cox (45) as well as Kaplan (246), Starke (2), and Pinto highlight the scene parodying the erotic “wet shirt scene” in the 1995 BBC series. In Lost in Austen, the scene opens with Darcy’s declaration that he has “labored so long in the service of propriety.” In other words, he now expresses his own need for liberation. Noting the difference between this scene and that which it “revises,” Cox overlooks Darcy’s claim for a (temporary) release from “propriety.”
Amanda’s initial reaction is a demurral: “Elizabeth. I am not Elizabeth. The entire world will hate me.” When Darcy replies that she is the one he loves, Amanda asks, “Will you do something for me?” As we witness him rising out of the large pond, Amanda reflects many viewers’ reactions by exclaiming, “I am having a bit of a strange post-modern moment here.” This scene, of course, is first of all a deconstructive wink at the 1995 BBC series, but we may also recall an earlier scene, in episode 1 of Lost in Austen, where Darcy at the Netherfield ball parries Amanda’s apology that she “can’t dance this sort of dance” by saying, “Nor I. Together we shall make a shambles.” This whole scene too is at the same time one of “propriety” (Darcy doing the honorable thing with regards to Miss Price) and a temporary release from it.
Pinto notes that when Amanda pursues Darcy “as a love interest and then botches it” by telling him of her sexual past, “she oversteps her prior role as a reader by deciding she must step in for Elizabeth.” Thus far she had been urging Darcy to direct his attention to absent Elizabeth. Her initial reaction to Darcy had been rather like Elizabeth’s in the novel, if worded in modern parlance: “Elizabeth, what can I say? You’re welcome to him, miserable sod” (episode 2). When Darcy refuses to marry her after all, Amanda rips up her copy of Pride and Prejudice and strews the torn pages into the pond. Having found the mangled paperback and read some of it, he believes Amanda to be the writer under an assumed name. And of course, in a sense Amanda has become the author of her own deconstructive romance.
The series deconstructs not only Austen and its quality spin-offs, but also the “reality” of our own time. Most of this takes place in the opening scenes of the first and the middle scene of the final episode, but the scenes in and around Longbourn emphasize the contrast as well as the similarities. “Set in the Regency,” writes Kaplan, “Lost in Austen also has a Noughties sensibility, a sensibility that Andrews uses to satirize such components of modern life as the contemporary tolerance of surliness, boorishness, and unkindness in everyday twenty-first-century public and private interactions” (245).
An interesting case of cross-cultural references that Kaplan brings up is that of a scene early on in episode 1, most of which has unfortunately been cut out of the American DVD version.2 When Caroline Bingley mercilessly challenges Amanda to demonstrate her musical skills, she is invited at least to sing if she cannot play the pianoforte. She obliges by giving a rendering of Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown,” which is more than just hilariously anachronistic. As Kaplan points out, Clark’s lyrics not only “set cultures clashing”; the song also “fits into the series because it expresses social as well as personal insecurities” (250). It supposedly “resonate[s] with the the older segment of the audience” (i.e., those of the generation of Amanda’s mother) and ironically it describes exactly “the noise and the hurry,” the “traffic in the city,” and the “neon signs” of twenty-first-century “downtown” London, from which Amanda desires to escape—elements of hectic modern life that are overwhelmingly visualized towards the end of the final episode.3
Kindly, Charles Bingley reacts: “Brava, Miss Price. And whenever life is getting me down, I shall be sure to go downtown. Eh, Darcy?” His sister’s comment is more venomous. When Caroline taunts her by suggesting that the fortune she thinks Amanda is aspiring to may pass her by, but that she is certain not to starve as she can sing for her supper, Amanda retorts, “No, I don’t suppose I shall on 27,000 a year.” This figure being taken at contemporary face value by those present (a typically Georgian mercenary “blunder”!) causes her at least temporarily to rise in everyone’s opinion. Readers of Pride and Prejudice will recall that Mr. Darcy’s annual income, enormous for his days, is a mere £10,000.
Amanda’s aggressive remark about her income may be seen as one of her many social “blunders.” Mullan, who devotes a chapter to the question why the plots of Austen’s novels rely on blunders, suggests that in her fiction the “blunder” serves a double purpose: “it can embarrass or mortify, but it also reveals a person’s true feelings” (212). Amanda’s “bum-face” blunder leads, via a made-up card game and Amanda’s generosity answering Bingley’s attempted wager, to her appreciation by Lady Catherine (“You’ve done well today, my dear”) as well as by Darcy (“Miss Price, I am decided. I was wrong”). In the case of Amanda’s revelation about her “fortune,” the blunder is as much Caroline’s as it is her own.
The characters original to the novel may reveal different attitudes to life in the series, but their language is quite in line with early nineteenth-century usage. As Starke notices, “for all the froth and outlandish plot developments [Andrews] demonstrates a respect for the novel’s themes and a keen ear for Austen’s dialogue” (1). Thus, for instance, speakers use “most” instead of “very” preceding an adjective, and their vocabulary contains words like “arduous,” “disporting,” “endeavour,” “enhanced,” “indisposed,” “intimated,” without being either overdone or out of character. The following scene at Netherfield from episode 2 may serve as an example of the authenticity of Andrews’s “Austenesque” dialogue:
Mrs. Bennet: Of course I am quite delirious with anxiety for Miss Bennet. With her sister Elizabeth being away for so long, I am all behind, like a duck’s taiI.
Darcy: I understand your daughter is sufficiently recovered to receive— [A servant places a rich tea-set on the table]
Mrs. B: Behold this tea! Does music give you pleasure, Mr. Darcy?
Darcy: Good music played with esprit cannot fail to please.
Mrs. B: My daughter Mary is prodigiously talented at music.
Caroline Bingley: Mr. Darcy thinks of Miss Price singing when he speaks of esprit. The fact she has 27,000 a year does lend sparkle to her dreariest utterance.
Darcy: What? Who told you that?
Caroline: She did. Unbidden. Gleefully. Am I not ghoulishly indiscreet?
Mrs. B: Hey. Oh, Jane. My heart has not beaten right since I discovered you were gone. Oh. Oh! I would never have allowed you out in such a storm. Mr. Bingley, you are to be chided for drawing her here.
Caroline: Quite so, Mrs. Bennet. From start to finish my brother’s every action has been unpardonable.
Jane: Mr. Bingley has been the quiddity of kindness. With the permission of my hosts, I am quite ready to return home.
Amanda: Come on, Bingers.
Charles Bingley: Oh. Right you are. Um, I’ll bid you good day, madam.
Amanda: That was pathetic.
The homeliness of Mrs. Bennet’s “I am all behind, like a duck’s taiI” is appropriate, as are her excited exclamations, although “Behold this tea” is perhaps a little over the top in its supposed over-correctness. Darcy’s speeches range from over-polite and pompous (“I understand your daughter is sufficiently recovered”), to Wildean apodictic (“Good music played with esprit cannot fail to please”), to blatantly arrogant in their directness (“What? Who told you that?”). Caroline’s are flippant, and Jane’s excessively polite and obedient. All of these examples might well have been written by Jane Austen herself. Amanda, of course, barges in with her own twenty-first-century slangy talk, referring to Charles as “Bingers” (the way her boyfriend in episode 1 addresses her as “babes” and “Mands”) and calling his lame departure from the woman he is supposed to be in love with “pathetic.”
Although Amanda gradually adapts her modern urban middle-class outspokenness to a more restrained Georgian parlance, she cannot help being mostly as “laddish” as the boyfriend she criticizes for his unromantic manner of speech. Occasionally this language rubs off on her Regency companions. Approaching Netherfield in a coach, she observes admiringly: “Oh. You could park a bloody jumbo! I mean, it’s an impressive façade.” Somewhat later, Lydia, commenting on the intractability of Darcy, tells her sisters: “At Longbourn I said to him: ‘Mr. Darcy, I have a wager with my sisters that I can extract three whole words from you.’ Says he: ‘You lose.’ He’s enough to park a bloody jumbo!”
While Amanda makes only half-hearted attempts to talk and behave in Regency style, Elizabeth meanwhile fully adapts herself to twenty-first-century life and speech. The suggestion here is that Austen’s rational and life-affirming character might, with little adaptation to circumstances, have fitted early twenty-first-century city life better than the “romantic” and displaced Amanda. Having found a job as a live-in nanny with a lady doctor and her husband, in episode 4 Elizabeth is “[w]earing jeans and a striped hoodie, and sporting a chic, low-maintenance hairstyle” and has “taken to mobile phones, laptops, credit cards, an independent income and a m[a]crobiotic diet” (Starke 2). She likes to see the television but does not care to hear it, and, called back from her new life to assist her wounded father at Longbourn, she is careful to “switch off the appliances” as her employers “are most anxious about the size of their footprint.”
In the end, Mrs. Bennet too seems to have picked up Amanda’s speech and behavior. As Cox describes her, “[P]ortrayed largely unsympathetically for much of the series—as the mercenary mother willing to marry her daughters to the highest bidder—she eventually redeems herself through her confrontation with Lady Catherine” (45). In the scene in which she is visited by Lady Catherine, she does not let this dominant lady get much further than her complaint that she finds the room rather small and that Mrs. Bennet has done nothing to promote the cause of Mr. Collins’s three even more obnoxious brothers as “an excellent match” for the other Bennet girls. When asked what she has to say for herself, Mrs. Bennet after only a slight hesitation retorts: “I say this. You are a prig, madam. A pander. And a common bully. And you cheat at cards. Do you suppose you may enter my house and brandish your hat at me thus? I have a mind to turn you upside down and use you to scrape out Ambrosia’s sty.” Mr. Bennet, who has taken to sleeping in his library, shouts out “Tally-ho, wife!” and asks her permission to “sleep in our bedroom” again. And Jane, when her then still husband Mr. Collins protests, tells him to “be quiet, you silly man.” Amanda is impressed—“Jane! Jane! Mrs. Bennet! That was bloody marvelous”—possibly giving voice to Jane Austen’s own private thoughts about the pompous characters she created.
Lost in Austen is more than a mere parody or an adaptation “predominantly nostalgic and deferential” (Ridout 22). In fact, it reanimates its original on a number of levels: intertextually, linguistically, psychologically, and in terms of gender politics. As it turns out, Amanda Price is as dissatisfied with life in modern England—or in a postmodern miniseries!—as Elizabeth Bennet with hers in a Regency novel. Unwittingly, she performs a liberating role: “Amanda reads her own body into the novel with a liberating effect: we learn about Miss Bingley’s preference for women because she feels free enough around Amanda to proposition her; in Amanda’s liberating presence, Georgiana Darcy can admit to her failed seduction of Wickham” (Pinto). Whether she has also permanently “liberated” Darcy remains an open question. But as she ultimately opts for a romantic “happy end” with him (probably as uncertain as that of Elizabeth with Darcy in the novel), she seems not so much to have liberated herself as she has liberated Elizabeth—and, in a certain sense, Jane Austen.
1The online Urban Dictionary (at www.urbandictionary.com/define.php) explains this curious expression as referring to anal penetration. In Cambridge, “the punter stands on the till and punt[s] with the open end forward, while in Oxford they stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward.” Referring to Lost in Austen, the IMDb website provides a similar explanation, but states that the expression describes lesbians (www.imdb.com/title/tt1290007/trivia).