The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen

I was delighted when Tellysquawks asked me to review The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen. It’s not often I get to pontificate on a subject I actually know fairly well and the subject matter means I get to stick with the rather stilted, pompous style I was able to make my own during my Downton Abbey reviews. Piece of cake, then?

Well, no, as it turns out. I might be able to sneak in as many jokes as Austen herself managed, but without Dame Maggie to tee them up for me, it seems this review may be as in want of the funny as a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a blah blah blah.

Our host is the lovely Professor Amanda Vickery. Lovely because she’s somehow unable to maintain the requisite neatness and decorum despite her power suits and also because she’s the most outrageous flirt when interviewing boffins.

She even makes derogatory references to toffs in front of Earl Spencer: a man who sits down to a freshly pressed copy of “The Daily Toff” with his breakfast of toffee apples before toffing himself off in the shower and heading to the toffice.

Unfortunately, like a Take a Break headline, the weak innuendo in the title doesn’t pay off. It’s just a hook to draw us in. As we’re shown around Austen’s bedroom the question “I suppose we’re not going to learn anything of her nightly activities” is met by a stern “NO” from the curator. We’re then shown a likeness of Jane drawn by her beloved sister Cassandra, which shows a woman of thin-lipped ordinariness: perhaps a model for the “before” stage of most of her heroines.

Instead, we’re asked to consider how Austen’s works have been perceived through the ages, from modest but real success in her lifetime to the barren period after her death, via huge popularity in the trenches of WW1 to the apogee of 20th century culture, i.e. Colin Firth’s moist, turgid nips (you can Google that yourself).

It’s interesting enough, but not exactly gripping. A highlight is the auction of the only extant manuscript in Austen’s hand of The Watsons, her unfinished novel – expected to make £2-300,000. For a time, the programme turns into a high-class version of Cash in the Attic and it sells for £850k to the Bodleian, who surely already have it as a £1.50 Wordsworth Classic in their “every book ever published” library, the show-offs.

Handily, there are enough clips of modern film & TV adaptations to add a dramatic element, though most of them feel rather more dated than the books themselves. From Sylvestra Le Touzel’s epic Fanny (quiet at the back) in the 1983 Mansfield Park – perhaps the worst lit programme in the history of the BBC, through to Dan Stevens’ Willoughby in the 2008 version of Sense & Sensibility.

“Can you forgive me? Can you love me? Will you marry me?”

Oh god, yes, I’ll marry you, Matthew!

Wait, what?

Back in the present day, much of the programme takes place at an Austen convention in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s an exercise in why every writer needs to retain their merchandising rights: we’re exposed to a multitude of pillows, parodies and a pouch containing a pair of black lace knickers and a note from Willoughby himself. “I’m sorry I never told you, but I like to wear ladies’ underwear, is that a problem?”

Seminal literary critic F.R. Leavis (I have decided all future articles I write for Tellysquawks will include comments from F.R. Leavis. And possibly A.J.P. Taylor. But NEVER that charlatan Bertrand Russell) claimed Austen as one of the 5 most important British novelists. Andrew Davies thinks that Austen-love may have peaked. But then Charlotte Bronte apparently thought the same 150 years ago, thinking her predecessor shallow, prim and superficial. “Passion is unknown to her!”

Though not innuendo, it seems.

However, I’m not sure either of these vocal critics nailed it. Lovely Amanda, on the other hand, suggests that the everlasting appeal of Jane Austen’s writing is that beyond descriptions such as “uncommonly handsome”, she allows her audience to create whatever images they like in their heads of her evocative characters and impose themselves into the centre of what can loosely be described as the action.

I like to think, dear reader, that I’ve done the same with this review. You’re somewhere in the middle of it, just before the turgid nips bit.

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