TV Review, Passions: I Hate Jane Austen (Sky Arts): creator of the modern novel or trite bore? Or both?

Plus: Invasion! with Sam Willis (BBC4)

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 12 December 2017 14:44
Critic and commentator Giles Coren betrays his prejudices in this forcefully argued essay on the 19th century novelist
Critic and commentator Giles Coren betrays his prejudices in this forcefully argued essay on the 19th century novelist

I have to admit that I really couldn’t resist a show that proclaimed its intent quite a forcefully as Passions: I Hate Jane Austen, by Giles Coren. Because I do too. Hate Jane Austen. With a passion. I admire Giles Coren, though: much funnier writer than Austen, you see.

Like Coren, I found myself in such a condition of loathing having been force-fed Austen as a teenager at school (in my case Mansfield Park – the title of the novel, not my school). But I was surprised that the experience made Coren late for losing his virginity (which I suppose sounds rather like a raunchier version of an Austen “storyline”, to use a modern term). Like Coren, I found her comedies of manners prissy and her characters childish and annoying. The world she wrote about and lived in meant nothing to me either. And, like Coren, and everyone else it seems, I have had to grow old in a world where her trite prose, wistful romanticism and inexplicable legend is ubiquitous – the countless adaptions on film and TV, the Bridget Jones stuff, even finding her mug on the back of a tenner. She’s made me hate a banknote.

So I was with Coren all the way, including when he ducked into one of the countless shops selling tat in Bath, which has become a sort of theme park for Austenalia. There he was able to get himself some Austen fudge, an “I {heart} Darcy” bumper sticker, a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”), Jane Austen Top Trumps cards and – the best seller, this – A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice, complete with a bonneted little rodent featured on the cover.

Coren trotted, albeit reluctantly, through the six famous novels, listened to fans and supporters, attended a Regency-style dance and found himself falling in love a little with old Janie. He was, understandably, moved by her premature death at the age of 41, just when she was on the verge of becoming a literary celebrity.

Gradually, the case for Jane was made. I liked especially Joanna Trollope’s summation of Austen’s novels as being centred on “the quiet beastliness and subtlety of the way human beings deal with each other”. More persuasive still was Coren’s old mucker David Baddiel, who volunteered the view that Jane was much like Giles Coren himself: “Witty and acerbic and slightly misanthropic when she wants to be, but underneath it she has a beating heart of love.” (Vain as I am, I like to think I too might qualify for that epigram – you see how flattery works, comedy-of-manners style?).

Even if you don’t much like Austen, you must acknowledge – as Coren had to – her status as the creator of the novel as we know it today: the first person to place her subjects in such a relation to her as storyteller as she did; the first to explore themes in this format of romantic love, money and class; and the first to treat the reader of a novel with some respect. True, she did not “invent” the novel, but she made it fit for purpose, so to speak.

So, yes, even those of us who still think Jane Austen is “horses***” (Coren’s term) have to respect that. Without Jane Austen we would not have travelled from Shakespeare to Martin Amis, as Coren conceded, and for that we should indeed be grateful. I’d also acknowledge that Jane Austen had no control over what she became, this commercialised, commoditised, twisted and debased icon. So, no, the Guinea Pig versions of her novels, and much else about the Austen craze, might well appal her as well, if she were around to witness it.

That, then, was Coren’s journey, and he half-persuaded me (no pun intended) to pick up Mansfield Park again, as I felt a little guilty that the novel that filled me with revulsion was the one he and many others found most appealing, and detached – with hero Fanny Price being the dispassionate observer of these vanities of early 19th century country life. As I examine the back of a new polymer Bank of England £10 note, I notice the inscription: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” There’s nothing I can add to that.

I thought I’d enjoy also the second of the three episodes of Invasion! with Sam Willis, and I must say I did. Despite having been force-fed medieval and Tudor history at state schools (something I believe that doesn’t happen much nowadays), I developed something of a taste for it.

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Willis has the TV historian’s typical relish for myth-busting (for example, that Elizabeth never made that “heart of a king” speech at Tilbury) and the remarkable knack of being able to retell the very familiar stories of, say, the Norman Conquest and the Spanish Armada, and imbue them with urgency and telling detail.

However, he is at his best when he explores some of the Cinderella tales of history, such as the tale of Perkin Warbeck, which I’d half-forgotten. Warbeck it was whose “invasion” consisted of turning up and convincing a surprisingly large slice of the population of Cornwall that he was the rightful king of England, Richard of York, long-lost “prince in the tower” supposedly done away with by Richard III. Richard/Perkin and made a serious attempt to dethrone Henry VII on the basis of a con trick.

I would, though, have appreciated some explanation of where Warbeck’s magnificent name came from. To me he sounds more like someone out of a 1970s British sex comedy than the near monarch of England. My historical appetite is not sated yet.

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