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.
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"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
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