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Complete Jane Austen News Roundup: Familiar Territory Edition

February 10, 2008

We’re not sure if any of our Gentle Readers has actually never seen P&P95, which begins tonight as a three-part series on Masterpiece Classics, but we’re going along for the ride anyway; because what “Complete Jane Austen” would be complete without P&P?

There doesn’t seem to be much about it in the papers, but the PBS Remotely Connected blog has a review from Myretta Robens, doyenne of the Republic of Pemberley; an appropriate choice, as P&P95 was the inspiration for the founding of the Republic.

By the time this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was first broadcast in 1995, it had been long-anticipated by many Janeites. But it took others by surprise, turning totally unsuspecting people into Jane Austen fanatics. I don’t think any of us of anticipated the visceral response we all experienced. One day we were perfectly normal people going about our business and the next the day we were raving obsessives. I watched the first two episodes, went to the phone and paid $100 (which I really couldn’t afford) for the tapes, because I knew I would want to watch this repeatedly. And, for some reason, we all went to the Internet looking for kindred with whom we could discuss this sudden obsession.

And so it began!

Kathryn Hughes’ article in the Guardian isn’t really about the Complete JA, but we thought it certainly germane.

When the new crop of this winter’s costume dramas was announced by the BBC last October, it spawned a lot of breathless chatter in the press about the return of romance to our screens. Attractive young men and women would soon be circling each other in endless scenes of glorified country dancing (when did Strip the Willow become so sexy – I don’t remember that kind of erotic charge as we lumbered round the school hall when it was too wet for netball?) before surrendering to the inevitable, 10 minutes before the final credits.

As transmission drew nearer, Andrew Davies, responsible for last month’s Sense and Sensibility, was drafted in to explain that the opening scene of his adaptation would comprise a seduction scene that was downright filthy. “Oh, he’s just ‘obsessed’,” we huffed, while making a mental note to be seated with five minutes to spare when January rolled round.

Hee.

But over the past 12 weeks it’s become clear that the romance narrative that lay at the heart of classic BBC drama such as Pride and Prejudice in the mid-90s is signally lacking in the latest batch of Cranford, Sense and Sensibility, and Lark Rise to Candleford. What drives these new stories forward is not true love but economics, the very real business of getting by in a world of dwindling pounds, shillings and pence. The emblematic character on our Sunday evening screens is no longer a man with tight trousers and a sneer, but a woman bending over her account book with a worried frown.

Take Cranford. Never was a novel so devoid of sexual interest – as the narrator, Mary Smith, explains on her opening page, it is a community given over entirely to women. Clearly worried by this, the producers of the recent production clumsily spliced in a tepid romance from another Elizabeth Gaskell short story involving an incoming doctor. The good doctor did what heroes in costume dramas are supposed to do – he galloped up a crunchy gravel drive and managed to get the wrong girl to fall in love with him –

Actually, several! Ha!

but it was hardly this that drove the narrative.

What really mattered was the economic ruin of Miss Matty, a sixtyish spinster who loses her money in a bank failure and ends up having to keep shop, selling posh tea to keep body and soul together. Miss Matty might – and this is the bit that really kept us gripped – even have to leave her prime bit of real estate, otherwise known as a sweet little cottage in the Cheshire vernacular. It was Northern Rock all over again.

Which is interesting since that particular episode isn’t reached until the fourth of five episodes, we believe (it’s been a while since the, er, rogue satellite signals reached AustenBlog World Headquarters–but we can heartily recommend Cranford when it appears on PBS–just have a box of tissues handy for the Gaskell Parade O’Death™). Meanwhile, we get to see a beautifully played romantic story for Miss Matty with overtones of Persuasion. Mrs. Gaskell’s stories are quite similar to Jane Austen’s in many ways, but the social questions are not dealt with as subtly, and leaving them out of a film would be more noticeable. Thus you have in North and South the stories of the mill workers, and in Cranford Miss Matty’s situation. The movies would be much less rich without them; but sometimes we wish more of the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels pick up the oh-so-subtle undertones rather than just concentrating on the Big Romance. Can’t do that in 90 minutes, though, that’s for sure.

Leave a Comment
  1. Sandra permalink
    February 11, 2008 1:31 pm

    I was faffing around the house last night and picked up the remote to see if anything interesting was on. I was so delighted that it P&P95 that I called my fellow local Janeite just to cackle with glee. Of course we can pretty much recite it, but it doesn’t get old. We chewed over the conundrum of “costume drama” being such a perjorative term in certain circle. There’s a huge market for this kind of stuff when it’s done well. Bring it on! And if it’s about grim economics rather than romance, well, that’s okay too. But throwing in Phillip Glenister on horseback and Greg Wise in the topboots never hurts. :D

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