Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy

It is an irony universally acknowledged that the writer of 'Pride and Prejudice' died a spinster. But a TV drama shows why we should not pity her, says James Rampton

Playing Jane Austen can seriously damage your health. That, at least, is the worry of Olivia Williams. The actress is portraying the author in Miss Austen Regrets, a one-off BBC1 drama that explains why the novelist died a 41-year-old spinster, having failed to meet her own Mr Darcy.

In a break between scenes on set at Hall Barn, an appropriately stately manor house near Beaconsfield, the 39-year-old actress confides that she's fearful of the consequences if Austen's legions of passionate fans – the "Janeites" – take against her portrayal of their heroine.

"It's a terrifying prospect," Williams shudders. "These diehard Janeites will pelt me with rock cakes if I make a mistake. Already, they're complaining online – 'She's too tall, she doesn't look right!'"

But Miss Austen Regrets, to be broadcast on 27 April, won't lack for authenticity; it is the fruit of months of meticulous research by Gwyneth Hughes. The writer, who penned last year's acclaimed BBC1/HBO thriller Five Days, says the screenplay is so closely tied to Austen's own words that she almost feels she should split the writing credit.

"The script is based on Austen's surviving letters to her sister and to her young niece Fanny. So I must share the credit for quite a lot of the dialogue with Miss Austen herself," Hughes says. "And I must say, it's been a strange and humbling experience to feel this genius of English literature peering critically over my shoulder as I write. But I have loved every minute in her company."

Hughes's script – the latest contribution to the burgeoning industry of Austen-related films (Becoming Jane, The Jane Austen Book Club) – dances a gavotte around the subject of marriage. Apparently happily unmarried as her 40th birthday looms, Jane lives in straitened circumstances with her mother (Phyllida Law) and sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi) in Hampshire.

Her beloved young niece, Fanny (Imogen Poots), asks the author to run the rule over her potential husbands, prompting Jane to look back in melancholy on her own suitors. Her memory alights on the ones that got away; in a flashback, we see that when the author was 27, a rich neighbouring landowner, Harris Bigg-Wither (Samuel Roukin), proposed to her. She initially accepted, but after a long dark night of the soul, the next day she turned him down. The rejection condemned her family to live in genteel poverty, and her mother never let her forget it.

Jane reflects wistfully on the fact that this episode put her off the very idea of marriage. Consequently, she never settled down with her soulmate, the Reverend Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), a clergyman who could wait no longer and ended up marrying someone else. It is a poignant tale of missed opportunities.

The makers of Miss Austen Regrets say this story was just crying out to be made into a drama. "If people only know one thing about Jane Austen, it's that she never married," says Anne Pivcevic, the producer, who was also responsible for BBC1's recent Sense and Sensibility. "It's fascinating that this woman who wrote so extensively about marriage and love with such perception and humanity never married. So when we discovered that at the age of 27 she actually had a proposal, which she rejected, we thought that was very fertile ground for drama.

"Harris had a marvellous house and a lot of acres, so for Jane to turn him down was a scandal at the time. But in the drama we explore the idea that it was a definite choice to rebuff Harris. She refused him because she did not truly love him – that's a theme that resonates throughout her novels. She remained unmarried as a choice, not out of bitter disappointment. The word 'spinster' denotes a victim – it's never used in a positive sense. But in Jane's letters, we found an incredibly affirmative voice, someone who knew her own mind.

"Yes, Harris was very rich and would have ensured her family's security, but Jane simply wasn't willing to compromise. She was an independent woman who was determined to live by her own lights. Jane remains an iconic figure to us because she made 21st-century choices in the 19th century," Pivcevic says.

Olivia Williams, the mother of two young daughters, three-year-old Esme and Roxanna, one, is sitting on the exquisitely manicured lawn of Hall Barn, a country house that would not look out of place on the cover of a Penguin Classic. Set dressers fuss round us hanging lanterns from the topiary for the next scene – the inevitable country ball sequence.

The actress was first spotted on an audition tape by Kevin Costner and invited to co-star with him in The Postman, her Hollywood breakthrough. She has gone on to feature in The Sixth Sense, Rushmore and Friends, and can currently be seen in the film Flashbacks of a Fool.

Williams ponders why Jane rejected Harris. "People's lives aren't planned," she muses. "They're just a random series of more or less faltering cock-ups. Jane was not some Virginia Woolf-style, proto-feminist heroine asserting, 'I want to be on my own.' She was not a bluestocking. She loved order and wanted very much to be within the parameters of acceptable society. The problem was that she didn't fit into it. She fully intended to, but she was so sharp and bright, she didn't slot in."

The actress, who played Jane Fairfax opposite Kate Beckinsale in the 1996 version of Emma, adds: "Clearly, the novelist had very strong views about female behaviour, but she wasn't a rebel. She just kept being too clever and overstepping the mark. She kept telling it like it is – she couldn't help herself.

"She didn't settle for Harris because she didn't love him enough. She wasn't some sloppy romantic – she was practical. She understood what my mum always used to say to me: that being married and having kids is really tough. It's bearable if you love the other person, but if you don't, it's unbearable. Jane knew that, but I still think she was gutted not to have found a husband."

Even if these events saddened Austen as a woman, they enriched her as a writer. Her life bled into her work. In Persuasion, for instance, she writes wryly that "a woman of seven and twenty can never hope to feel or inspire affection again".

Pivcevic agrees that "Austen's life informed her work. She wrote about the very difficult practice of getting to the altar. Her own love affairs had a very rocky road, and that is reflected in the novels. Look at poor Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. She plumbs the depths. Heartache and misunderstandings abound, and she nearly dies on the way to the altar. But, in contrast to her own life, Austen's heroines always get there in the end – ultimately, she always gives them both love and money."

Austen's bittersweet experiences endowed her novels with a rare astringency. "One's impressions from screen adaptations of Austen is that it's all lovely girls running down hills in flowery dresses," Williams says. "But Austen could be a real bitch as well. She could nail the weaknesses in someone's appearance or accent. She could deconstruct people accurately and uncharitably, and would rail against their faults and foibles. That's why I – and the vigilante Janeites – love her."

Some 200 years after her death, Austen continues to inspire devotion not only from the Janeites but from the public at large. Pride and Prejudice, for instance, topped a poll of "The Books that Changed Your Life" on Radio 4's Woman's Hour. So why does Austenmania rage on?

Williams, who studied English at Cambridge University, says: "I'm in awe of Austen. She is the reason I've never written anything. I remember trying to write like her once and coming up with these clearly risible attempts to plot or describe things as brilliantly as she does."

The actress, who says she never goes anywhere without Austen's letters, pinpoints what makes her such a cherished novelist. "She writes with the perspicacity of someone who can see people for what they really are. She knows how to keep you on your toes. And out of that come these perfectly structured love stories. I also love the fact that her heroines have imperfections. Everyone reading her books thinks, 'There's hope for me. Even though my best friend is the most beautiful woman in the room, I could still get the gorgeous man in the end!'"

Greta Scacchi takes up the theme. "Austen is eternally popular because she writes wish-fulfilment stories. In the end, her characters get what they want. On the surface, her novels seem archaic – the whole elaborate story leads up to the moment of the first kiss and there is no exploration of what happens afterwards. And yet Austen's work throws up universal questions that are as relevant today as they were in her time: is this the right man? Is there such a thing as true love?"

Austen will always strike a chord because the ideas she addresses will always preoccupy us – love and marriage. Williams, who has been married to the actor Rhashan Stone since 2003, laughs: "It was looking pretty ropey for me at one point. I was 35 when I got together with my husband – that's another reason why I thought I understood Jane's predicament.

"We all know women who – dreadful phrase – have left it too late. It's common in our generation. So I didn't waste my time. I'd known my husband for ages, but once we hooked up, it was less than a year before we got married – 'Quick, find me a priest.' Marriage was a state of being I wanted to be in. Again, I think I comprehended how Jane must have felt."

It is an irony Austen herself might have appreciated that, while the writer may have suffered for her principles, we benefited immeasurably from them. Williams thinks that spinsterhood actually enhanced Austen's authorial skills. "I've recently had my second child, and I know that anything that can be cut out of your life is cut out of your life when you get married and have children. If Jane had got married, her writing would have been the first thing to go. It's selfish of us to be grateful if she was unhappy being a spinster, but our consolation is that she was able to write these wonderful books."

With a mischievous smile, Williams adds: "I'm not saying that Jane would have preferred to be on her own, but thank God she was!"



Miss Austen Regrets is on BBC1 at 8pm on Sunday 27 April

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform