Today marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Olivia Kelleher looks at why modern audiences are still very much enamoured with her.
THE world has never fallen out of love with Jane Austen because she had an ability to bottle a certain type of Englishness that is very attractive, according to Trinity College Dublin English lecturer Daragh Downes.
Dr Downes said there would not be the success of Downton Abbey or The Crown without Jane Austen’s creation of this micro world of the landed gentry and aristocracy.
“She has had an amazing longevity. She has also been kept alive by movie adaptations and rom coms. There is even a zombie version of Pride and Prejudice. Fan fiction is proliferating as we speak.”
Dr Downes attributes Austen’s longevity to cultural nostalgia and the yearning for the simplicities of an apparently simpler time.
However, he says the irony of all this is that fans are nostalgic for a world that in many ways Austen herself was lampooning or at least subtly undermining through parody.
“It is a bit like 200 years from now somebody reading the Ross O’Carroll Kelly books and saying ‘we need to get back to the manly virtues of Leinster Schools Rugby’. It is that level of stupidity behind this.
"There is a certain species of Jane Austen fan who dresses up in the costume and has tea and crumpets and feels that is at the heart of what Jane Austen is talking about. Jane Austen didn’t think like that. If Jane Austen had thought like that in that nostalgic way she would have been writing novels set in Shakespeare’s time. She was modern for her time.”
Dr Downes says Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary, is as much of an heir to Austen as anyone. Like Austen, she writes about the world around her that she knows and understands.
Downes says Austen has been claimed by conservatives and by liberals and both of them find good evidence for what they are saying.
“Because the way she works is through irony and through subtly undermining, and this is also a complicating factor part of her is also in love with the world of landed gentry and Regency England. Part of her is fascinated with the textures of the chintz and the corsets and so forth. But she has great wisdom and she sees beneath the surface of that world.”
Dr Downes says Austen’s extraordinary popularity is at times detrimental to her legacy as academics often try to reduce everything she is doing to politics rather than just appreciating her storytelling.
“It is one of the things that makes me most uneasy about Jane Austen criticism — an army of academics trying to reduce everything she is doing to politics. If you can imagine an army of academics giving conference papers on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and all they want to talk about is gender construction or class system bias in that album.
“It is something of that scale that is happening with Austen. These are fictions. These are brilliantly-constructed fictions in which the craft of the novel is what is actually making it last. So I think Jane Austen’s worst enemies are in one sense her fans. Some of them. A certain breed of fan particularly in the US, where bottled Britishness is in vogue.”
Downes adds that Austen has endured because she was an “extraordinarily talented ordinary woman”.
“She was a very gifted writer. But what makes her gifted is that the real brilliance is happening under the surface. Take the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice. In that one sentence, she has drawn her reader into an entire world with its social assumptions and its cultural assumptions. She is not being fully serious. She is being ironic.”
Daragh Downes adds that Austen’s appeal is that her work lends itself so well to cinema and television adaptations.
“I think there is a stability in the Austen world that is perfect for rom-coms. It is perfect for the game of chess that almost arranged marriages were taking place in. Regency England is very hierarchical. It is by setting herself really strict limits she is able to be subversive.”
The Colin Firth effect — But was he like the real Mr Darcy?
Colin Firth set hearts racing in the mid-1990s with his depiction of Mr Darcy in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
However, the Oscar-winning actor nearly lost out on the role that launched his career because casting agents decided his hair was too red.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies recently revealed he was unsure about Firth until the actor was convinced to darken his hair.
“With Colin I was a bit doubtful because of his colouring at the time because he didn’t have those dark curls back then. We said he had to go dark and he did go dark. He’s stayed dark ever since so he must have liked it.”
Asked what Firth’s hair had looked like before he appeared in Davies’ adaptation, the writer said: “Underneath all that he’s sort of fairly ginger.”
Though it’s the role that made him famous, Colin Firth almost said no to playing Mr Darcy. While speaking at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2010, Firth admitted he didn’t think he was right for the role.
“I couldn’t see there was anything to play because the character doesn’t speak most of the time,” Firth said.“I thought this is just a guy who stands around for hours driving people to despair.”
Meanwhile, academics recently revealed what they insist is the first “historically accurate” portrait of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy.
Instead of the broad shoulders and square jaw of Colin Firth or other modern depictions, there is a modestly-sized chest and pointy chin. Historical fashions from the 1790s would have meant that men of standing would have worn powdered wigs. There is little description of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, so the academics used historical fashions from the 1790s, when it was written.
“Our Mr Darcy portrayal reflects the male physique and common features at the time,” says Amanda Vickery, professor of early modern history at Queen Mary University of London. “Men sported powdered hair, had narrow jaws and muscular, defined legs were considered
It seems muscular chests and broad shoulders would have been the sign of a labourer and not a gentleman at the time the book was written by Austen.
The famous Mr Darcy television moments — when Colin Firth walked out of a lake dripping wet and Matthew MacFayden crossed a field in the mist — would not have looked the same with the historically accurate Mr Darcy and his narrow shoulders.
The real Mr Darcy would have had a long oval face with a small mouth, pointy chin, and long nose alongside slender sloping shoulders and a modest chest, with large quads, thighs, and calves; all common features of a gentleman of that era.
He also would have been around 5ft11in as opposed to Colin Firth’s 6ft2in or Matthew MacFadyen’s 6ft3in in the subsequent 2005 film.
It seems Darcy’s character has been sexed up for the modern day female audience with a super-charged injection of testosterone and charm.
Fans of the author can take a step into her world in Cork this autumn. An Evening with Jane Austen is being hosted by Words by Water, the Kinsale Literary Festival in Ballinacurra House on September 1.
From dancing to costume, the event will be a chance to take a step back into 18th century life and culture, wearing period dress or black tie.
The evening will start with canapes and sparkling wine on the lawn, followed by Baroque dance instruction with world-renowned teacher, Mary Collins. During the meal, scenes from Austen's greatest dramas will be performed by Classic Times Theatre Company.
There will be awards for awards for best dressed man and woman but no prizes for swimming in the lake!
Tickets for the evening are €85 per person, available here.
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