I’m a fan of the film and book review blog known as Hamlette’s Soliloquy. So when I discovered a week celebrating all things Austen was planned, I just had to stick my two penn’orth in! Welcome to my contribution.
I have chosen to share my love of the four-part British TV series Lost in Austen with you. It was written by Guy Andrews and directed by Dan Zeff in 2008, and is now available on DVD. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it.
Jane Austen purists should look away now… maybe a bracing walk along the Cobb at Lyme Regis would be preferable, or a few minutes stitching a needlepoint sampler. You choose! However if, like me, you have a great admiration for Austen’s work but can flex a little towards the ridiculous, then Lost in Austen is for you.
It’s a delicious fantasy in which the modern day heroine, Amanda Price, (played by Jemima Rooper) like many Austen devotees, escapes from the drudgery and crassness of twenty-first century life by wallowing in the world of her favourite novel, Pride and Prejudice. The difference is, in this story, she goes a step further.
After the shocking and brief discovery of Elizabeth Bennet (played by Gemma Arterton) in her bathroom – yes, really, she’s examining the laundry, which she refers to as ‘underthings’ draped over the bath to dry – our heroine, Amanda, passes it off as an hallucination… That is, until the next time a visit occurs, when Elizabeth points out the panel in the wall through which she has entered. (If you enjoyed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, you will totally buy this concept.) Encouraged by Elizabeth, Amanda steps through the open panel and onto the upper landing at Longbourn, where the door behind her closes, and she’s stranded in Regency England – right at the start of the Pride and Prejudice story.
The weary, cynical but nonetheless courteous Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) is the first family member she meets. Luckily for her, he totally accepts she is Elizabeth’s friend, as does the rest of her family. Well, all but Mrs Bennet (Alex Kingston) who regards her like a cuckoo in the nest; someone who might just queer the pitch in her own machinations to snag eligible suitors for her daughters.
And so the story progresses, from the first visit of Mr Charles Bingham (Tom Mison) to Longbourn, and on to the Netherfield Ball, where we have the joy of setting our eyes on Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy (Elliot Cowan) for the first time. He’s every bit as handsome and brooding as you might expect, not to mention – seriously uptight!
Thoughout the story, you’ll rediscover all the main characters, although not necessarily depicted exactly as in the version you’re used to. The author, Guy Andrews, has nuanced members of the cast with other quite feasible traits, whilst not really straying from the people we ‘know’ from the book. I found this added to the whole project.
For example, I’m glad he made Mrs Bennet less vulgar and risible; she is, after all, the only person truly taking the future plight of her family seriously. She’s on a mission to ensure her daughters are comfortably settled – no easy task when you have five to shift. In other dramatizations of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet comes across as a shrill and irritating caricature, but in this version, I had much more sympathy for her predicament.
I also found myself falling for Wickham (Tom Riley). He’s still a charming rogue but one with heart. In fact, for a while, I believed he would become Amanda’s love interest due to the distinct and simmering chemistry between the two characters.
So, whilst Lost in Austen treads the line of the original story, the key difference is that Amanda is there, and Elizabeth is not. Consequently, Amanda feels a massive weight of responsibility to keep the narrative on track. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy must marry. It’s cast in stone. Two hundred years of fluttering hearts attest to that. And much of the humour in this series arises from Amanda’s attempts to steer the characters in the right direction, even though events are conspiring against her.
There’s also amusing absurdity in Amanda’s inability to get into character. Despite her passion for the book, she can’t quite transform herself into a woman of the era. Proving you can take the girl out of modern culture but you can’t take modern culture out of the girl. But, in an interesting twist, Elizabeth Bennet is just as fascinated by our contemporary society as Amanda is by Regency England. We rediscover Elizabeth when, at a moment of crisis, Amanda rushes through a door and finds herself back in twenty-first century Hammersmith. Elizabeth is now a pixie-haired nanny, following a macrobiotic diet and is surprisingly au fait with modern technology. She is, she tells Amanda, born out of time. (Fans of her sharp intellect and spirited attack on life probably knew that, didn’t we?)
I have so many favourite moments from Lost in Austen. Every time I watch Jane offering Bingley a dog rose, I get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. To be honest, I find the love story between Jane and Bingley, in this version, more moving and satisfying than in the original.
Then there’s Elliot Cowan’s Darcy; in my humble opinion much hotter in a wet shirt than Colin Firth ever was. Sorry, Firth fans.
And even Mrs Bennet has her moment of glory. She finally stands up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and not only wins our hearts but recaptures her husband’s. It’s a truly fist-pumping moment in the proceedings.
That’s not to say I find Lost in Austen faultless – I do have a couple of niggles. Firstly, Amanda’s appearance. During the Regency period, I suspect if a woman had turned up in leggings and a leather jacket, jaws would have dropped, fans flapped and blankets would have been thrown rapidly about her nether regions, in the name of respectability; and then there’s her hair… at no point does she defer to the fashion of the day and pin it up. It remains resolutely long and limp. (Though surprising glossy in the absence of Wella or l’Oreal.) Mind you, I can see how this does help to set her apart from the rest. Secondly, there Darcy’s sudden and impassioned declaration of love, which seemed to come out of nowhere, and totally took me by surprise, never mind Amanda.
All the same, it remains a jolly, entertaining and rewarding romp through familiar territory, and there are many witty lines in the series. Here’s my favourite. At a point where the story is teetering horribly off course, Amanda Price says to George Wickham’s retreating figure: “Hear that sound, George? Duh-uh-uh-uh! That’s Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble-dryer.”
Wherever you sit on the subject of tinkering with the classics, who hasn’t read a novel and daydreamed about life in a fictitious world? Isn’t that the beauty of fiction – to be transported from the mundane to the fantastic? It doesn’t upset me that they tampered with Austen’s masterpiece. For me, Lost in Austen is a delicious homage to one of our favourite romantic novels. The vehicle is a curious time-slip fantasy that tests our disbelief and yet delivers fun and romance in a classy and affectionate little package. This is romantic comedy at its finest.
If you haven’t seen it yet – I urge you to give it a go.