Friday, 5 June 2009

Lost in Austen, an analysis (1/4)

Hey, long time no see!

A lot has been said about the series Lost in Austen: about the casting, costumes, story (Life on Mars) and all that is appropriate about a series. But I have not seen a lot so far about the series on a more analytical level. I will attempt to do that.

Brilliant as the series was in terms of scenery and everything else, brilliant it was too in terms of structure and approach. Not only the idea was great: having a girl of now get stuck in the world of then (although not totally new); but also the total concept was worked out very well by the author of the series: Guy Andrews. As adapting proves already difficult, because one cannot get carried away with his characters, asking oneself how characters would respond in case something strange happens, is a real challenge. Guy Andrews managed that very well. I am not here to sing the love of Andrews, but I will throw a glance at what the man wanted to say with his series. A lot, as it seems…

The first episode starts thus:

‘It is a truth, generally acknowledged, that we are all longing to escape.’ The main character, Amanda Price, goes on about the fact that she likes to escape to Pride and Prejudice, her favourite book; that she knows the words by heart; that that book is like a window opening into that world; that she can almost touch that world and almost see Darcy… Here she gets a little too much carried away for her own liking and goes back to the book with ‘where was I?’ It is only then that the opening credits start.

This introduction, as it will turn out, will mean a lot, and sets the tone for a one facet of the series: the insecurity of women in this day and age, where they are modern women (self-confident, speaking their mind), but at the same time all dream about Darcy (as Elizabeth in the last episode will also show on the Google search page ‘The Darcy-obsession’). And why is this? That is what Amanda will come to understand as she goes on through the door which ‘her need only opens’ (in the words of Elizabeth Bennet) and gets on through the story of Pride and Prejudice.

If we read the start of Pride and Prejudice, which the start of Lost in Austen was clearly by and based on, we can easily see what Andrews meant. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.’ (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 1) We can easily see what Amanda feels: she looks at her own life and feels that she is supposed to do certain things (work, earn money, go out with her boyfriend and all kinds of things), and why? Because ‘it is so well fixed in the minds of the’ people that surround her. She ‘must be I want’ of all this. Yet, no-one ask her if her life is the she wants.

Episode one starts with a portrait of Amanda’s life, a life we all know: having a job, a boyfriend, stress. ‘[She] patch[es] [her]self up with Austen.’ She is not the only one who likes to sometimes ‘stay in with Elizabeth Bennet’ and yet, she asks herself the question if she is a loser… Is it so strange that she likes stories of 200 years old? is it strange that that story still speaks to her, despite its age? It is obviously a question a lot of women ask themselves… We women have everything to be at ease: we are no longer ‘the wife of Mr X’, we can earn our own money, we can divorce if we are tired of our husbands, we can have sex with whomever we want, as often as we like (even with different men every week) and what-not. We have everything to be happy, if we look back at the days of Elizabeth Bennet. In fact we are expected to be happy with this kind of life, because ‘we have already come so far’ as feminists would say… So, this girl feels as the men in Pride and Prejudice: such an awful lot is expected of her, she does not know whether that is what she wants, and yet everyone tells her she has no problems, so no reason to be unhappy or uneasy. Why does Amanda then need to ‘patch [her]self up with Austen’? What is it with Darcy and Elizabeth that hypnotises her and us? Is it ‘Collin Firth in clingy pants’ alone, or is it more than that?

Just at the moment she reads Elizabeth’s sentence: ‘Had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner…’ (refusing Darcy’s first proposal), the bell rings and Amanda’s boyfriend comes in, totally drunk, and proposes to her with a bottle-opener… Indeed, ‘You are mistaken if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 34) Of course, Michael is not as proud as Darcy in this case, but Amanda cannot possibly find it In her heart to marry him. She does not find him prince charming. She is not sure, and the ‘mode of his declaration’ was not at all convincing… It is the morning after that (or even the same night?) that she finds Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom. Amanda next starts to reminisce about whether she was hallucinating, whether there is too much Austen in her life, or as her mother would profess: not enough boyfriend…

When she goes to her mother, a mother who is notably divorced and going through a midlife crisis decorating her house instead of having sex because ‘one can stop and have a cup of tea’, the two talk about the proposal. The mother is in favour of it: he does no drugs, does not beat her up, and she urges Amanda not to waste her life pretending what she is not. What can Amanda want more in a man? what is there more to find in a man? Amanda professes that she is not in love with Darcy, or ‘Collin Firth in clingy pants’, but that she has standards. She loves ‘the love story, Elizabeth, the manners, the language and the courtesy,’ ‘it is part of what [she] is and what [she] want[s].’ But will she be happy at the end of her life, though, waiting for prince charming? Or will she end up forever waiting because there are no Darcys in the world and frustrated at the thought?

It is after this that she reads chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice: the conversation between Jane and Elizabeth after accepting Darcy’s proposal, and it is also then that Elizabeth reappears in Amanda’s bathroom. As Lizzy intimated the first time, it is Amanda who has opened the door for her, not she herself who decided to pass through it. And it will be indeed Amanda who passes into Regency England through the door in the bathroom. After the door slams shut, Amanda is stuck and will have to start her learning process…

It is then that she meets Mr Bennet, Claude as his first name turns out to be (very appropriately the name of a useless emperor of Rome, featured in another ITV-series I, Claudius), and that she declares that Lizzy and she have swapped places, because Lizzy is writing a book and the house was too noisy for that. Whether she is really writing one, remains to be seen. What is sure, is that she is stuck in the story. That they indeed have swapped. She still tries to convince Elizabeth to open the door again, but Amanda’s need compels her to stay. A first light will be shed on that need, and the need of us all, at the ball of Netherfield where she kisses Bingley in a drunken fit of passion.

There she says what it is about:

‘In my world, Mr Bingley, all I ever do is dream about the loveliness of your world. The stately, elegant rituals and pace of courtship, of love-making as you call it, under the gaze of chaperones, of happiness against all odds and marriage… Here I am, I talk to you for two minutes, I kiss you and you… So I’m a little disappointed in myself, Mr Bingley. I feel like those guys that discovered that stone-age tribe and gave them the common cold, wiped them out. (Bingley sneezes)’

This in itself is not merely a declaration of frustration at her loose morals, compared to his (naturally because we are freer now than people were then. Free to snog outside the door of a nightclub), but it is also a declaration of her view on our freedom: the common cold wiped the tribe out. It is something the discoverers did obviously not think about because they have no trouble with it, but when it wipes the tribe out they see how potentially dangerous it is. It is because we are used to it, that we can fight it and conquer it. This, in Amanda’s mind, is also the case with us. We can kiss and make love (have sex as opposed to the use of the word in Austen’s times) with anyone without people questioning our honour, but have we not lost the importance of it all? As Michael, who asks for ‘Amanda’s hand in marriage’ with a bottle-opener, have we not lost the importance of love, family and marriage/fixed relationships in our society of total freedom? That is at least what Amanda seems to feel will happen to Bingley and the other characters if she carries on like she does; it is the same as what Mrs Bennet fears; and it is the same as what Lady Catherine fears and why the latter comes to take an attempt at throwing her out of Regency Society because ‘land, blood and property’ are the only things that matter. Amanda finds herself in danger of ‘spoiling’ the ideal world (of the noble savages) she discovered.
After this, Amanda tries to get Elizabeth back again (also partly because she herself is seducing Bingley instead of Jane), but again her need compels her to stay and the door does not open. This, time, a letter is shoved under the door:

‘My dear father,

I pray you, sir, not to trouble your mind about your most headstrong daughter. I quite flourish in Hammersmith. I’m minded to sojourn her alone a while. If I might be so presumptuous as to offer advice to my own father, then I would admonish him to pay particular attention to Miss Price. She is intimately acquainted with the doings of our family and I cordially believe her its most formidable ally. Trust her.

Your affectionate daughter, Elizabeth

Although this is a letter to her father, Amanda has to read it and pronounces ‘Trust her’ rather to herself than to Lizzy’s father. This provokes a thinking and it highlights Elizabeth’s role in Lost in Austen as an indication for Amanda’s learning process. Elizabeth was also born out of time, but in the end both Amanda and Elizabeth belong to the world of women, like Mrs Bennet and Jane who rebel respectively against Lady Catherine and Mr Collins in the end. Also the men will have to face up to their own needs, like originally Darcy did in Pride and Prejudice. Mr Bennet will take responsibility for his daughter, Bingley will rebel against Darcy and reproach him for losing him Jane, and Mr Bennet will also respect his wife better for speaking her mind. Like this, he does lose ‘authority’ as a husband, but he will no longer see her as a sad burden who is overdue. All this because of the influence of Miss Price (Bingley who ends up sneezing)… As Elizabeth and Amanda are both women, as ‘noble savages’ they should be able to cope in another society and change as a result, but only on the outside. Deep inside, both are good people and essentially the same although shaped by their own societal rules. Elizabeth will discover the modern world, while Amanda will discover more of a traditional role as a woman. Although, Elizabeth stays true to her role as traditional woman, caring for the children of the Rosenbergs. As it turns out, all appliances are on, but are they necessary?

If we go back to the beginning, does this not indicate that people have and had a certain image of women? We as women are not even allowed to choose anymore what we want. In the days of Austen we were the property almost of our husbands and the only thing we needed to do was find a husband and have children. Now, we have jobs, we have relationships that start and even end, unlike in Austen’s days, but are we still allowed to care only for our children and husband? can society cope with that view? Or are we not put inside a box, as the men in the second paragraph of Pride and Prejudice, so that we ‘must be in want’ of all this? What if we are in want of a Mr Darcy? That is probably what Amanda wants to escape to unconsciously when she reads Pride and Prejudice, only, it ‘frightens [her] to death’ as Lady Catherine put it. It frightens her to death because it is not what she learned she is as a woman. As in the second paragraph of Pride and Prejudice, people are supposed to be in want of something: women are now not naturally ‘in want of’ a husband, but now, they are ‘in want of’ everything else, while there is no father in Western Europe who will consent to maintain his daughter(s) until they get married… As such, Amanda needs to discover her traditional side as a woman in that world of Regency England. And Elizabeth will have to discover her modern side, although with a traditional twist.

The first episode concludes after Jane has left for Netherfield, in an attempt of Amanda to save the day for Jane and Bingley.

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