I'm not sure if anyone can pinpoint the moment when Jane Austen changed from an early 19th Century author to a contemporary one. Austen's new-found popularity has thrust her into the position of a media celebrity whose life is no longer her own. What Austen might have done or thought or written has spawned a whole genre of books and movies, like "Becoming Jane" and "Miss Austen Regrets." I found both heavy-handed and ultimately unsatisfying.
Playing with Austen's stories is so much more fun than playing with her life — and allows for true creative license, whether one is using her novels as the catalyst in modern love stories like "The Jane Austen Book Club," or re-imagining them the way Amy Heckerling transformed "Emma" into the brilliant "Clueless."
As someone who enjoyed both of Laurie Viera Rigler's novels about Austen addicts and time travel, I was pre-disposed to like "Lost in Austen," the four-part 2008 British television series for the ITV network. Though released on DVD in the U.S. last spring, I just heard about "Lost in Austen" from a friend who'd also read Rigler's novels.
The story centers around a young woman, named Amanda Price, who is so enamored of Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," so steeped in its plot, characters and classic love story, that she conjures up Elizabeth Bennet in the bathroom of her London flat. Lizzie shows her the door connecting that room and the attic of the Bennet family's home in Regency England. In a flash, Amanda's gone through the door — which closes while Lizzie is still on the wrong side.
Amanda (above) explains her sudden appearance by telling the Bennets that she's a friend of Lizzie's, who has come to stay while their daughter spends time in the city; a more plausible and interesting set-up than the two merely exchanging lives. Knowing "Pride and Prejudice" almost as well as Miss Price, I found "Lost in Austen" a thorough delight. Part of its charm is that while Miss Price knows the story intimately, no one else does. Indeed, they don't even know they are just characters in a novel — iconic though they and it may be.
As a lover of the book, Amanda is thrilled to find herself in the midst of it — but her mere presence begins to affect the story. Without Lizzie, the Bennet family has lost its equilibrium, its center. Without her, the lives of Austen's characters begin to spin out of control — threatening the outcome of the novel that's held us in its spell for almost 200 years.
George Wickham (Tom Riley, left) with the Bennet family: Lydia (Perdita Weeks), Kitty (Florence Hoath), Jane (Morven Christie), Miss Price (Jemima Rooper), Mary (Ruby Bentall), and Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston).
Writer Guy Andrews ("Prime Suspect," "Poirot," "Lewis") has crafted a witty, imaginative, intelligent — and very funny — take on Austen's beloved classic. The presence of Miss Price in "Pride and Prejudice" has set both the story and the characters adrift in uncharted waters. That means that the people we thought we knew well — Lydia Bennet, George Wickham, even Bingley — become alive and engaging in ways we're unprepared for.
Some characters appear to be the same as they ever were; Mr. Collins is as foppish and obsequious as always. But as this story unfolds, there is an undercurrent of malevolence to him that is new and unnerving. Lindsay Duncan, however, may be the best embodiment of Lady Catherine de Bourgh committed to the screen: intelligent, cunning and deliciously domineering. She offers neither caricature nor star turn; her Lady Catheine has passion and purpose.
And, yes, there are anachronisms and inconsistencies but I did not let them trouble me. Instead, I enjoyed the bits of trivia, references to Colin Firth and Miss Price chiding Bingley using the words of Mr. Knightly in "Emma." I watched the entire three hours in one go and then did it again the next day!
Available to buy, to rent through Netflix or to reserve through the South Central Library System which currently has ten copies and 82 hold requests.