ARTS: DRAMA: Whatever happened to Jane?

All of a sudden, Jane Austen is everywhere. But why her? And why now? Marianne Macdonald reports on the Austen industry

IT IS a curious phenomenon that wherever you go these days you trip over Annes and Elizabeths and Emmas and Elinors busily arranging their marriages. The Jane Austen cult is starting to verge on the obsessional, with books and adaptations, not to mention biographies and even sequels, springing up all over the place.

This year alone there has been a deluge. April saw an acclaimed adaptation of Persuasion on BBC2. Next Sunday sees the first instalment of Pride and Prejudice, BBC1's flagship autumn drama. Meanwhile in the West Country, Gwyneth Paltrow, Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson are filming a version of Emma, which also provides the "inspiration" for Clueless, a Hollywood comedy out next month. December sees the publication of Emma Thompson's diaries about the making of, and her own screenplay for, Sense and Sensibility. The film itself is released next year.

With all these come new editions of the novels, featuring stills from the films: Sense and Sensibility from Bloomsbury, and Pride and Prejudice and The Making of Pride and Prejudice from BBC Books; while earlier this year Deirdre Le Faye's edition of Jane Austen's Letters hit the bookshops. To complete the list one should briefly mention The Jane Austen Cookbook, also co-written by Le Faye, the three new biographies in the pipeline, the BBC Omnibus programme on the Austen industry to be screened next month, and Pemberley, the perky sequel to Pride and Prejudice written by Emma Tennant.

The staff at Jane Austen's House museum at Chawton in Hampshire have strong views about all this activity, including the claim by an American academic last month that Jane Austen had lesbian tendencies and fancied her sister, Cassandra. "They are using Jane to gain publicity, and we object to that rather strongly. They are standing on her shoulders," says Jean Bowden, curator.

This seems undeniable, but it is perhaps surprising that the film-makers are doing so at all. They might so easily have viewed these innocent and parochial love tales as irrelevant in an era of casual sex, quickie divorces and worldwide travel. In fact, their innocence is their strength: they tap into a nostalgic longing for a world of country estates, ordered ritual, and rich, single men.

Le Faye subscribes to the nostalgia theory. "For us the Regency period is very olde-worlde, and because Jane Austen's books were written for a contemporary audience they don't go into what we now understand to be its seamy side: the agony of childbirth, the torturous tooth extractions, the deaths on the hunting field. For Jane Austen that was part of everyday life but she didn't dwell on it," she says.

Austen's disregard of the brutal underbelly of the Regency period - the transportation of convicts in appalling conditions, the tenements of the poor, the medical techniques bordering on the bestial - certainly makes for easy reading. The everyday events she writes about are treated optimistically: unhappy characters have minor parts, the ill-judged marriages of the Bennets or Bertrams are comedic rather than tragic, and major disasters tend to take the form of carriage accidents or heavy colds.

Another aspect of her light, bright and sparkling style is that the heroine usually gets the guy; one has only to read the lonely-hearts columns or follow the saga of ex-Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith's marriage to the octogenarian Texas multi-millionaire J Howard Marshall to realise how central this preoccupation continues to be. As Julia Roberts proved in Pretty Woman, the Cinderella myth is as potent today as it was in Austen's time - and the Bingleys, Darcys and Knightleys as sought-after in their modern incarnations.

But Deirdre Le Faye takes a darker view: "These are stories where the boy gets the girl and they set off at the end on what we hope and they hope will be a happy married life. But that isn't to say a year after the story ends Emma doesn't die in childbirth or Mr Knightley out hunting, or they don't fall out of love. In the past if you got married you had to stay married. It was very important to choose right."

In this context Jane Austen certainly offers attractive possibilities in the Jeremy Irons/Anthony Andrews mould. Henry Crawford, Reginald de Courcy, Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, Frederick Wentworth, Edward Ferrers, Lord Osborne: they are all handsome and (mostly) possessed of charm and large estates.

Andrew Davies, who wrote the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, believes today's women are attracted to Austen partly because her heroes are so much more sexy than anything on offer in real life. "Her men are really men. Male role-models such as Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley are strong, reserved, handsome, rich and gentlemanly. We sense no doubt about their masculinity or sexual orientation," he says.

The irony is that although Austen's heroes are built to Barbara Cartland specifications, they never act in an overtly sexual way. These men would never dream of getting to first base before marriage. It was the flouting of this convention which raised most eyebrows in Nick Dear's adaptation of Persuasion in April: Anne Elliot kisses (oh, horrible!) Frederick Wentworth at the end in a gesture which was, as scholars pointed out, most inappropriate.

In fact, this unsubtle alteration was inserted by the BBC against Dear's wishes: he himself sees the absence of sex as a reason for Austen's appeal. "Although Hollywood movies and magazines are full of the availability of sex, they contradict people's experience, which is that you go through a long courtship, fall in love and get married. There is a strong audience desire for courtly love and Jane Austen plays on that," he observes.

This may be a reaction to the trend towards violence and explicit sex in films, dramas and modern novels. It may be that the BBC is attempting to win back its reputation for quality costume dramas. Or it may be more simple. Austen adaptations have small casts and, because they are out of copyright, the books are free. As Fay Weldon - who adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC in 1980 - points out, they are "as safe a bet as a four- or six-part cop serial". And there is something peculiarly poignant about the cut of an Empire-line dress.

! 'Pride and Prejudice': 9pm, BBC1, Sundays from 24 September.

FROCKS ON THE BOX Pride and Prejudice (1940). Directed by Robert Z Leonard. Screenplay co-written by Aldous Huxley. Starring Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier. The first and best-known film adaptation: "Very stilted and rather silly but stays in one's mind" (Fay Weldon).

Persuasion (1971). Granada TV. Directed by Howard Baker. Starring Bryan Marshall, Ann Firbank. "Lovely and perfectly straightforward. It is Jane Austen" (Jean Bowden, curator of the Jane Austen Memorial Trust).

Emma (1972). BBC TV. Directed by John Glenister. Adapted by Denis Constanduros. Starring John Carson, Molly Sugden, Vivienne Moore. "True to the text, but Emma seems rather old" (Jean Bowden).

Pride and Prejudice (1980). BBC TV. Adapted by Fay Weldon. Starring David Rintle, Elizabeth Garvey. "It would suit you very well to get through any examination ... and I always think it's a writer's duty to help people through exams" (Fay Weldon on her own adaptation).

Mansfield Park (1983). BBC TV. Screenplay by Ken Taylor. Starring Nicholas Farrell, Anna Massey. "One of the most serious of her novels beautifully captured" (Nora Walker, president of the Australian Jane Austen Society).

Northanger Abbey (1987). Directed by Giles Foster. Starring Robert Hardy, Googie Withers, Peter Firth. "Very bad: missed the joke and got the characters all wrong - not the slightest idea of Jane Austen's intentions" (Jean Bowden).

Persuasion (1995). BBC TV. Directed by Roger Michell. Screenplay by Nick Dear. Starring Ciaran Hindes, Amanda Root, Corin Redgrave. "A supremely intelligent piece of television ... Jane Austen would have approved" (Allison Pearson, Independent on Sunday).

AND COMING SOON ...

Pride and Prejudice (1995). BBC TV.

Directed by Simon Langton. Screenplay by Andrew Davies. Starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, with support from Alison Steadman, Benjamin Whitrow, Susannah Harker, Julia Sawalha and Polly Maberly. The BBC's big hope for the autumn, in six parts. Starts next Sunday.

Clueless (1995). Directed by Amy Heckerling (of Look Who's Talking fame). Starring Alicia Silverstone. Hollywood adaptation of Emma - closer to Beverly Hills 90210. Release date: 20 Oct.

Emma (1996). Miramax. Directed by Douglas McGrath (screenwriter of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway). Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Northam. Now filming in "England's West Country".

Sense and Sensibility (1996). Columbia Tri-Star. The one they're all waiting for. Directed by Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet). Adapted by (!) and starring Emma Thompson. With a supporting cast that is a virtual Who's Who of UK luvviedom, including Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Imogen Stubbs, Hugh Laurie and Harriet Walter.

Research: Janice McGinley & Lisa Allardice

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