A WEEK IN BOOKS

With all middle England on tenterhooks awaiting tomorrow's first episode of the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, everybody is asking why we have become such Austen addicts. Hype for the series itself is threatening to be overwhelmed by a kind of meta-hype: we're as interested in watching ourselves watching Jane Austen as we are in Jane Austen herself.

We've had Nigel Dempster crowing with English superiority over the American TV executive who asked how well Jane's books were selling and whether she'd be available for interview. Roy Hattersley has been a fly on the wall at a preview screening, monitoring the reactions of a group of "academic ladies" to what he worryingly calls the "erection scene" (though what this scene actually consists of, and whether it even exists, is still a matter for debate).

Confident that we're as interested in the background stuff as we are in the series, the BBC has brought out a book, The Making of Pride and Prejudice (Penguin, pounds 8.99) which includes interviews with the production team and cast (Alison Steadman tells us how getting the part of Mrs Bennet was "like being given a huge box of chocolates"; Lucy Briers, who has the unenviable task of personifying the plain, sententious sister, Mary, explains how she drove her fiance mad with piano practice), and gives us a foretaste of what it's all going to look and sound like.

Locations, clothes, hair and food have been researched with tireless historical accuracy before being recreated in three dimensions. The book offers a sumptuous array of stills from the film: Lizzie at the Netherfield ball, Darcy on horseback, the Bennets having dinner. Yet for all that the production strives for authenticity, the picture which struck me as the most genuine was a shot of six of the actresses off-duty, sitting in costume in a line against the wall, waiting to go on set. They are all reading, apart from one who has a piece of embroidery, and they have a relaxed, absorbed air about them which is utterly enchanting and makes you feel you are eavesdropping on a real moment from a flesh-and-blood past. Their line-abreast formality, coupled with their air of unselfconscious ease, seems perfectly to mirror the mixture of formalism and elasticity in Austen's prose, and of the combination of honesty and restraint that informs her moral vision.

If only, you think, acting could be this naturalistic. Austen writes with such delicious facility that, reading her, one's hardly aware of reading. Austen on screen should be just as free from staginess.

This, of course, is just a dream. No amount of elaborate artifice, no number of historically accurate candle-snuffers and coiffures, can give the illusion of such unselfconsciousness. Yet there are ways and ways of playing Austen. Alison Steadman felt that acting Mrs Bennet was like a box of chocolates. Let's hope that the series manages to avoid the theme- park nostalgia of the Quality Street tin, and does justice to the complexities of Austen's characters.

Lucasta Miller

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