Christina Patterson: Jane Austen and the sexual smorgasbord

What did they want, for God's sake? Their balls, deep-fried, on a bed of wilted spinach?

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She flirts remorselessly. She wakes up with a hangover. She wisecracks with her women friends about the myriad failings of the pitiful male specimens she surveys. Sex and the City's Samantha? Carrie? Miranda? No, Jane Austen, of course.

That, at least, is the version of Britain's most eternally adored woman novelist on offer in Jane Austen Regrets, the costume-fest-cum-biopic scheduled to hit the sitting rooms of Middle England next Sunday night. Perhaps predictably, it's a seriously sexed up portrayal of the upper-middle-class Englishwoman who lived with her sister and mother until the day she died, a spinster, at 41. In an age when every aspect of life (from the breakfasts of celebs to the faecal matter of fat housewives) is deemed a subject fit for mass televisual consumption, who could resist the temptation to dig deep into the romantic recesses of Eng lit's best-loved Bridget Jones? A Bridget Jones who remains – hauntingly, tragically – unshackled to her Colin Firth or even that slightly dull vicar/accountant/IT consultant down the road.

"Your only way to get a man like Mr Darcy is to make him up," says Olivia Williams' Jane Austen to her niece Fanny (a sentiment echoed by my mother, who once sent me a card bearing the cheery greeting "Searching for Mr Right?" and then inside the helpful solution: "Look in fiction!"). This vehement assertion of no-nonsense realism is underlined by an obsession with money that has this Jane swinging slightly wildly between acerbic social commentator and Regency Heather Mills. It is, however, somewhat undercut by the drama's central thesis: that Jane Austen was a passionate romantic, one who withdrew her acceptance of a rich young Londoner's proposal because she wasn't in love with him, and who regretted, till her dying day, her decision not to marry the man she loved because he was too poor.

It's possible, of course. Anything's possible. Ultimately, however, any attempt to capture the truth about Jane Austen's emotional life is about as likely to be successful as efforts to reach firm conclusions on Shakespeare's Dark Lady, or the one true meaning of the Koran.

What we do know is that Jane Austen was one of the finest observers the world has seen of the mores of a particular culture at a particular time, and that her observations were imbued with a profound understanding of the human heart. Which, on the Mills principle (John Stuart, not Heather) of the happiness of the greatest number, makes any fleeting romantic disappointment of its author as relevant as, say, Gordon Brown's rebuke to Mugabe or Konnie Huq's to Beijing.

Lucky Helen Fielding, creator, in these pages, of character turned totem Bridget Jones, will not have to endure such an ordeal, having successfully bagged a man, and nor will Candace Bushnell, creator of column turned book turned film Sex and the City. If the book was not exactly, as one critic claimed, "Jane Austen with a Martini", it was certainly a sassy and engaging portrayal of a moment in which middle-class women found themselves, once again, fighting over a commodity in rare supply.

The TV series, it seemed, divided the human species in a way not seen since Satan plucked a ripe Braeburn from a tree and thrust it in Eve's sweaty palm. Polite boyfriends giggled nervously at the sight of these brittle, buffed New Yorkers united in their search for the perfect Manolo Blahniks and the perfect man, and concluding that perfection was a quality much more easily found in shoes. Women guffawed. They screamed with laughter at the highs and lows of the dating game – the conquests, the quirks – and at the shattering of sexual taboos. Never before had the peculiarities and dsyfunctions of the urban sexual jungle been so excruciatingly, embarrassingly, exposed.

Most men, however, were rather less amused. They saw a coiffed, cackling coven, waiting to hunt them down, eat them up – and spit them out. Greedy, self-indulgent, narcissistic women. What did they want, for God's sake? The brain of Einstein, the heart of Mother Teresa and a house in the Hamptons? Or their balls, perhaps, deep-fried on a bed of wilted spinach?

What men failed to see was the real pain of the women, trapped in a culture which has promised to supply their every need, a culture in which they've finally managed to grab a degree of financial independence – but which has failed to deliver. These were the women who were led to believe that you could get the whole package – intellectual stimulation, mind-blowing sex, shared interests, equal housework and that old favourite, a GSOH – and who, for all kinds of reasons, couldn't find it. Because half the men were gay, perhaps? Cowering in corners? Preferring the company of less threatening women? Or abducted by aliens back to their native Mars?

Or perhaps because that weird hybrid the human animal, a social construct with biological urges, stumbling along in different cultures and at different evolutionary stages, is bound, from time to time, to get in a bit of a tizz. And because, according to Maslow's hierarchy of masochism (usually known as a hierarchy of needs), comfortable women in a consumer culture – of which I am clearly one – have a need to create more needs.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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