Jane Austen and Looking for Mrs. Darcy

Please do not throw your teacups at me; I was not a Jane Austen fan until recently. Friends were stumped by this, but I had spent most of my reading life with the modern language of 20th century authors. Pride and Prejudice was neither required in school, nor did it appear on my parents' bookshelves. I finally read the book a few years ago; my sister had it on her shelf so I said all right, I would try it. I read the first page and started laughing. Who knew Jane Austen was funny? Everyone, it seemed, but me.

Years earlier (1995), over the shoulder of my daughter, I saw my first dramatic televised version in the form of a children's show in which Mr. Darcy was played by a Jack Russell Terrier with a voiceover: the educational program Wishbone. The dog took the lead roles in a number of literary classics of which Pride & Prejudice was one (season 1, episode 25: "Furst Impressions"). I didn't fully appreciate Mr. Darcy, perhaps due to his four legs.

Next up was the Bollywood update called Bride and Prejudice (2004), featuring the divine Aishwarya Rai and a very stiff blond actor whom I will not name (I keep imagining how much more amusing and strange it would have been if Mr. Darcy had been played by Owen Wilson). But we did get the hilarious description of Bollywood dance, "…this looks like you just screw in the light bulb with one hand and pat the dog with the other" from the film. Friends shook their heads and insisted that I see the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. I got it from the library and said to my spouse, "Watch it with me." He said he would give it five minutes. We both watched it to the end. Finally, the love story with Firth as Darcy hooked me.

This past week we saw the film version of the British t.v. series Lost in Austen, which is a remake of Pride & Prejudice with a twist: Amanda Price (no relation to Mansfield Park's Fanny Price?) is a contemporary young woman who rereads P&P to escape to what she feels is a more refined and wonderful world. She ends up time-traveling into the book itself and her presence changes and rearranges the plots. There's even a nod to the Colin Firth version, which is fun (and Elliot Cowanwho plays Mr. D, is just as "smoldering," a word Amanda uses in the film as well). Hugh Bonneville, now known to us as Downton Abbey's father figure Robert Crawley, portrays Mr. Bennet, also the father of many daughters.

Now that we are in the mood, perhaps this next news will be of interest. The University of Texas at Austin (!  okay, spelled differently, I know) has created a virtual art exhibit, a recreation of one that Jane Austen saw in 1813, a few months after P&P was published. An article in the NY Times called "Seeing Art Through Austen's Eyes" says that the show contains portraits of actresses, aristocrats, mistresses, high society ladies, and pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Also, according to the article, Austen wrote to her sister that she was going to see if she could spot a portrait of "Mrs. D" who "I dare say…will be in yellow." The article goes on to quote a second letter, written after she had attended the exhibit that says, "I can only imagine that Mr. D prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye." Trying to imagine Mr. Darcy fretting over a portrait of his love is a funny picture indeed. These quotes only reinforce my opinion of Ms. Austen's sense of humor.

I'm not sure that the Austen connection is the most interesting part of the exhibit, but the restaging process certainly is to me. At the U of Texas they used 3D software and referred to a preserved catalogue to recreate the building where the exhibit was held and the 141 paintings shown within "based on precise measurements recorded in an 1860 book." You can prowl around at the website whatjanesaw.org. When you click on a painting, you get a description; and some of them contain references to Austen, such as (in painting #2) that she had planned to see the actress Sarah Siddons. In real life, the portrait of Siddons, "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" is currently on display in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Art Gallery (more about the Huntington in this previous post). The descriptions of "Fancies" and "Sentimentals" (#3) as categories and the history behind the pictures are illuminating and add to our understanding of Austen's world as well.

Austen did not find a picture of Mrs. Darcy at the exhibition, but can we find one of Jane? Only a year ago, evidence based on photographs of a painting before it was restored showed that what was believed to be the portrait of Jane Austen at age thirteen was authentic. She is not in yellow; she is in white and holds a green parasol. 

It has been two hundred years since the publication of Pride & Prejudice. And since then, dozens, if not hundreds of homages, remakes, scholarly articles, and parodies of Jane Austen and her books have been created. Along with a fascination for her irresistible love stories and her world, we continue our fascination with Jane the writer as well. Perhaps we wish to understand how and what she saw, or to figure out how she wrote, or to inhabit her world. Perhaps we, too, like Amanda Price, wish to time-travel. 

Cup of tea, anyone?


Cathy said…
You have to read Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford.
It's funny because Jane Austen is now a 200+ vampire.

Yes, she is a vampire and you won't believe who turn her too. It's one wild story that pokes fun a few things too. I didn't think the author could pull it off but he did.