Sex and Syndication?


William Shakespeare has gone through numerous deaths and rebirths in the literary world. His works have been dissected, mashed up and then reformed into diverse and often bizarre new creations to match each age and taste that followed his Elizabethan splendor.

It seems that now the same fate is beginning to befall Jane Austen. In fact, Jane Austen has become a hot property, and not just in our fair Caledon.

I have taken the liberty of reposting the following excellent article by Caryn James in the NYT which looks at the current rise in “Austenmania” in books and films and the ways that modern readers are “modernizing” their 19th century heroines.

I wonder, would Jane mind? What do you think? Comments are, as always, welcomed.

Austen Powers: Making Jane Sexy

by Caryn James

POOR Mr. Knightley, thought to have been — on scant evidence — pretty bad in the sack. “Where’s the heat between Emma and Mr. Knightley?” a young woman asks in the new film “The Jane Austen Book Club,” and she’s not the first to wonder what the heroine of “Emma” might expect after marrying an older, oh-so-dignified man. The narrator of Margaret Drabble’s 1969 novel “The Waterfall” was more eloquent and pointed: “What can it have been like, in bed with Mr. Knightley? Sorrow awaited that woman.”

The New York Public Library Picture Collection

Jane Austen wrote to her sister, “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”

That narrator was also ahead of her time. Restoring passion, if not actual sex, to Jane Austen and her heroines defines the current wave of the flourishing Austen industry.

“The Jane Austen Book Club,” about six people who gather to discuss life and their favorite author, is set to open on Sept. 21, soon after “Becoming Jane” (Aug. 3), which gives Austen herself (Anne Hathaway) a heavily fictionalized grand romance. Austen has inspired new books, blogs and — defying her image as a writer for prim spinsters — dozens of funny YouTube mash ups. And in January PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” will begin an extravagant season called “The Complete Jane Austen,” with adaptations of her six novels (four of the films will be new) as well as “Miss Austen Regrets,” a biographical drama about her lost loves.

How did this early-19th-century novelist become the chick-lit, chick-flick queen for today? It is not only because she is an enduring writer. So is Melville, but bumper stickers and T-shirts read “What would Jane do?” not “What would Herman do?” A few other female writers have achieved pop culture celebrity: Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath for the drama of their suicides, the Brontës for the gothic romance of their novels and the contrast to their quiet lives. None inspire the warmth, fanaticism — or merchandising — that Austen does.

She has entered pop culture more thoroughly than other writers because she is almost spookily contemporary. Her ironic take on society is delivered in a reassuring, sisterly voice, as if she were part Jon Stewart, part Oprah Winfrey. Beneath the period details, the typical Austen heroine offers something for almost any woman to identify with: She is not afraid to be the smartest person in the room, yet after a series of misunderstandings gets the man of her dreams anyway. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to spot a potential movie audience for that have-it-all fantasy.

And while Austen’s era, with its rigid code of social rules, must have been repressive if you lived in it, when prettily depicted on screen it can seem positively peaceful and stable, a respite from today’s fraught, slippery world of quick hook-ups, divorce and family counseling.

All that’s missing from Austen is sex, and many new adaptations are adding what she was too ladylike to mention.

The emphasis on physical attraction began with the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” mini-series, which made Colin Firth a romantic idol as a Darcy with smoldering sex appeal. The next year Helen Fielding updated “Pride and Prejudice” for “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” naming her hero Mark Darcy and highlighting how intricately Austen’s popularity has been tied to films.

Bridget is not actually crazy about Austen’s Darcy, but about Colin-Firth-as-Darcy on screen; in the novel’s sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” she obsesses over the scene of him emerging from a dip in a lake in a dripping wet shirt. (Mr. Firth even had the wit to play Mark Darcy in the “Bridget Jones” movies.) That ’90s Austen wave came to include at least six screen adaptations, with three versions of “Emma”: Gwyneth Paltrow’s, Kate Beckinsale’s and “Clueless,” which shrewdly updated the character into a spoiled Beverly Hills high school student.

Unearthing the passion in “Pride and Prejudice” was deliberate, said Andrew Davies, who wrote the mini-series (part of the “Masterpiece Theater” season). A pre-eminent writer of literary adaptations, he has done four of the “Masterpiece Theater” Austens, including a new four-hour mini-series of “Sense and Sensibility.”

“Sex is the engine of the plot in ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” Mr. Davies said in an interview. “Darcy finds himself sexually attracted to Elizabeth before he even knows her. When he does get to know her, he doesn’t like her, but he still can’t keep away from her.”

For the new “Sense and Sensibility,” the story of the common-sensical Elinor and her impulsive younger sister Marianne (Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the glorious 1995 movie), Mr. Davies has taken Austen’s allusion to sex even further. In the novel we merely hear that the man Marianne loves, Willoughby, fathered a child with a young woman. As Mr. Davies described it, Willoughby seduces “this 15-year-old girl, then he rides off, leaves her pregnant and forgets all about her.” That seduction now plays out as the mini-series’s opening scene.

The 2005 film of “Pride and Prejudice,” with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, so emphasized their physical attraction that Darcy nearly became Heathcliff, a brooding Brontëan hero who fiercely declares his love while standing in a windswept rainstorm. This radically changes Austen. If Darcy isn’t a stick-in-the-mud, who is he? Yet that spark helps make the romance more appealing to a contemporary audience.

Sexual attraction is the least anyone would expect in a marriage today. In Austen’s time, when arranged marriages and marriages of convenience were common, her extraordinary heroines held out for love, another reason they speak so directly to modern readers.

Marsha Huff, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America (like so many Janeites, she’s not an academic; she’s a tax lawyer) points to the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” in which Lady Catherine (Judi Dench in the ’05 film), tries to bully Elizabeth into giving Darcy up because she is his social inferior. “Elizabeth reacts exactly the way we would react: she is insulted, she’s indignant at the way this dinosaur from another era would try to tell this intelligent, beautiful young woman what to do,” Ms. Huff said in an interview.

And however much society has changed, Austen’s heroines — unlike the Brontës’ — deal with the believable, timeless obstacles of class, money and misunderstanding, which make her works adaptable to any era. As Ms. Huff said: “Everyone thinks she’s Elizabeth Bennet; not everyone thinks she’s Jane Eyre. Everyone knows a young woman trying to decide if the guy she’s attracted to is Mr. Right. Not everyone meets a Mr. Right who has a mad wife in the attic.”

Austen herself lived the quiet life of a minister’s daughter and never married. In the age of celebrity, though, it’s surprising that films about her, like “Becoming Jane,” haven’t turned up before. And who wouldn’t want her to have had the fiery romance she gave her heroines? The movie plays out that wish-fulfillment on screen, taking a conventional, historical approach to the period, while giving Austen an adventure that — the filmmakers acknowledge — she probably never had.

The facts are sparse. Austen’s letters reveal that when she was 20 she fell in love with a young Irishman named Tom Lefroy, who was visiting his aunt and uncle, neighbors of the Austens, at Christmastime 1795. Neither Jane nor Tom had any money, an insurmountable obstacle to marriage. Tom left after this holiday visit, and she most likely never saw him again. (Some argue that they met once more at a later period.) Her letters make it clear that she was painfully disappointed, but there is no evidence that the flirtation went beyond that.

“Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about her encounter with Lefroy at a ball. (Translation: They danced together enough to make people talk.) It’s safe to assume that the real Austen never said, as the screen Jane does after planting a passionate kiss on Tom (James McAvoy) in the moonlight after a ball: “Did I do that well? I wanted just once to do it well.” Despite such exaggerations, the film does not turn Jane into a trollop.

Contemporary homages like “The Jane Austen Book Club” don’t even have to be coy about a heroine jumping into bed with a potential Prince Charming. But where Karen Joy Fowler’s “Book Club” novel seems contrived — five women and one man have conveniently varied romantic problems that reading Austen helps them solve — Robin Swicord’s film goes more directly to the essence of Austen’s current appeal. It begins with a jangle of cellphones and rush-hour traffic, the noise and mental clutter of day-to-day life that Austen can provide an escape from.

And it relies on the optimistic, sisterly voice that makes Austen so soothing. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), an often-married yet wise older woman, first meets Prudie (Emily Blunt), a distraught young woman in a troubled marriage, at a Jane Austen film festival. When Bernadette suggests the reading group, she assures Prudie, “It’s the perfect antidote.”

Prudie asks, “To what?”

Bernadette says, “To life.”

These characters don’t long to live in the 19th century but are so eager to channel Austen’s good sense that when Prudie considers having an affair, she imagines a traffic sign flashing the words “What Would Jane Do?”

Greater frankness about sex may help make Austen appealing to a younger audience. And because this latest Austen wave is likely to be fueled by the Internet more than the last, the movies are well positioned to reach that audience. The Jane Austen Society ( has just added an “Austen on Film” section to its Web site. Among other sites, is a witty source of news and commentary, started a few years ago by Margaret Sullivan, who modeled it on the popular Harry Potter site the Leaky Cauldron ( Ms. Sullivan (a Web coordinator for a Philadelphia law firm) is also the author of the useful, entertaining “Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World” (Quirk Books) which explains the difference between traveling in a barouche and a curricle, and offers tips the Bennet sisters could have used, like “How to Elope to Scotland.”

Actual books seem almost outdated, though, next to the YouTube videos, many made by students. Like the Austen movies, some revel in escape to a prettier past while others are hilariously irreverent as they haul Austen into the 21st century. Several put the words from the ’05 “Pride and Prejudice” trailer into the mouths of other characters: from the “Harry Potter” movies, or “The Gilmore Girls” television series or, in a video called “Lion Pride and Prejudice,” actual lions.

But the best and most timely are music videos that reflect the primal, Adam-and-Eve attraction that Austen so discreetly cloaked. A clever montage of Austen movie heroines is set to Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater, and clips of Regency-era men set to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.”

When Mr. Davies wrote the mini-series scene in which Darcy comes dripping out of the lake and encounters Elizabeth, their sexual connection wasn’t the point, he said. It was simply meant to be an amusing moment in which Darcy tries to maintain his dignity while improperly dressed and sopping wet. He could hardly have imagined that one day Colin Firth as Darcy would be on YouTube, the embodiment of bringing “SexyBack” to Austen.


  1. Oh bother.

    While admitting to liking the Bronte version of P&P Miss Knightly starred in (though its D’Arcy had naught on Mr. Firth), I really detest the need to rewrite one of the greatest character writers of all time.

    Austen continues to live today, even in our radically different times, simply because she had an ear for the human. Certainly, those unfamiliar with “archaic” language may find her characters stodgy–but this is simply because they are associating that linguistic style with old fogieness.

    Jane was anything but. She spoke about what she knew, of course, so those wishing an O’Brianesque sea battle might be disappointed with Persuasion. But she had a sharp wit, and to wish that they be “tarted up” her novels simply means that the reader hasn’t really managed to read them.

    Good Lord, what else is next, people complaining that Les Liaisons Dangereuse is not sexy enough because it is in French?

    P.S. Newflash to the above witer: many of us Woolf fans are less concerned with the tragedy of her death and more enamoured of her life and her works. Thank you very much. Hrmph.

  2. I believe this is, to a great degree, the result of modern society believing the self-delusions of previous ages and our own arrogance.

    After all, women of the past couldn’t have enjoyed sex or found fulfillment in their roles public and private. They certainly couldn’t have lusted or loved with the intensity of today’s more “liberated” women. If they did, wouldn’t it have been throughly described and exposed in their literature?

    We live in a disturbingly literal age. Reticence and euphemism seems to us like dishonesty. “Behind Closed Doors” doesn’t indicate modesty, but deception. We only believe in what we see, and if we don’t see it, then it either didn’t exist, or is being hidden from us maliciously.

    Jane Austen not writing sex scenes means that either women then did not have sex at all, did not enjoy it if they did, or were not allowed to show it due to the cruel repression of the age.

    It is much like my son, who is sure due to TV that the world before @1950 was in Black and White.

    Of course, he’s eight. What is their excuse?

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