I dream of Darcy

A new wave of Austen-mania revolves around ballgowns, romance and Colin Firth's sexy breeches. But what would Jane herself say about this fantasy of the perfect man?

By Rebecca Traister
Published June 27, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

It is a truth insufficiently absorbed that beginning a literary homage to Jane Austen with the words "It is a truth universally acknowledged" is not an original idea.

There is no better illustration of this truth than the stack of books, recently or just about to be published, that draw on the early 19th century novelist's work not simply as inspiration but as a fantasy ideal for 21st century women -- especially the single ones.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of her right mind must be in want of a decent man" ... "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 30-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little" ... "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Austen heroine must be in want of a husband, and you are no exception."

A trail of Austen-related chick lit, instructional manuals and choose-your-own-adventure books -- all designed to imaginatively send modern women back two centuries -- leads up to the Aug. 3 release of Miramax's highly imaginative "biopic" about Austen, "Becoming Jane," and September's filmed adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler's "The Jane Austen Book Club." In January, PBS will air new British adaptations of "Persuasion," "Sense and Sensibility," "Mansfield Park," "Northanger Abbey" and "Miss Austen Regrets," yet another biopic, on Masterpiece Theatre.

Besides the Miramax movie's companion volume, "Becoming Jane: The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen," there is also "Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine's Guide to Life and Love," "The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World," "Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Austen Adventure," and the novels "Me and Mr. Darcy," "Austenland," "Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen's Life, "Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict," "Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen" and "The Rules of Gentility," which is somewhat redundantly billed as "'Pride and Prejudice' meets 'Bridget Jones's Diary.'"

In 2007, it's still Jane Austen's world (or some mangled approximation of it); we just live in it.

How many 200-year-old authors of just half a dozen novels get this much play outside the ivy-covered walls of the academy? For that matter, despite complaints about current celebrity culture, how many scantily-clad half-wits get this much play? You can buy Austen puppets, dolls and posters, along with bumper stickers and tote bags that read "What would Jane knit?" and "Prepare yourself for something very dreadful."

Part of what differentiates this round of Austen consumption from dozens of past infatuations is the degree to which the satiric acid of Austen's work seems to have been drained and replaced with 100-proof, widely accessible romance.

"It's all about the dresses," laughed Rachel Brownstein, professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at CUNY, when I asked her about the current bout of Jane-itis. She was only half joking. "Everybody really wants to be Jane," she elaborated, meaning that they all want "to wear long ball gowns and go to dances and be genteel," not that they want to live in constant financial jeopardy and die single in their early 40s.

Brownstein suggested that in addition to a frock, readers may want to borrow some perceived strength from their favorite author. Reading Austen's books, in which bright, funny and not-always-beautiful women tend to win the day, "you get a sense that you can be sexy and self-expressive in a way that women feel they're not allowed to be," she said. "Jane Austen, in spite of all the constraints [of her era], is remembered as the greatest woman writer, who managed to be her unique and brilliant self. So whatever your obstacles, you can be unique and brilliant too."

This isn't the first time in recent memory that Austen-mania has gripped the lowlands of the pop-culture landscape. A little more than 10 years ago, the BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice," starring smoldering Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy, and Amy Heckerling's sparkly "Emma" update, "Clueless," together precipitated a torrent of adaptations, including Gwyneth Paltrow as "Emma," Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" and a mournful "Persuasion." Helen Fielding published her genre-defining "Pride and Prejudice" riff, "Bridget Jones's Diary," in 1996. The cycle seemed sure to peter out after Patricia Rozema's 1999 "Mansfield Park" and 2001's "Bridget Jones" film -- starring Colin Firth. But two years ago, it rebounded, with a heaving new Keira Knightley version of "Pride and Prejudice" and the Bollywood musical "Bride & Prejudice."

"We can lay a lot of this at Colin Firth's door, for good and for bad," said Margaret C. Sullivan by phone. Sullivan is the author of "The Jane Austen Handbook," the editor of Austenblog and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. "He's pretty hot, let's face it," she continued, noting that membership in JASNA swelled after the 1995 "P&P" miniseries, and then declined again once hot-to-trot adherents realized that it was not the same thing as a Firth fan club. Indeed, in at least one of this summer's Austen-inspired novels, "Austenland," the heroine is besotted not by Austen's writing, exactly, but by the star of the BBC miniseries.

In truth, Austen adoration is not a modern invention masterminded by Mr. Firth's agent. Austen has been admired by critics, from Trollope to George Henry Lewes to F.R. Leavis to Lionel Trilling, very steadily for the past two centuries. Her work didn't have to be reclaimed by feminist scholars in the '70s, as it had never gone out of vogue. In addition to academic approbation, Austen has long attracted rowdier crowds of acolytes. The term "Janeite" was coined in 1894 in George Saintsbury's preface to "Pride and Prejudice," and Rudyard Kipling wrote a story called "The Janeites" in 1924, about World War I soldiers who get through the ugliness of trench warfare through their shared love of Austen's novels. "You take it from me, Brethren, there's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place," says one of the soldiers in the story. "Gawd bless 'er, whoever she was."

But this year's wave of books and biopics is tinged with something different. Instead of acknowledging the enduring pleasures of Austen's satire, or demonstrating how smoothly her centuries-old observations apply to contemporary society, this round of fanaticism is more interested in going back in time -- or perhaps simply backward -- to play dress-up in empire-waisted gowns with suitably dashing suitors to swoon over.

"Before, I think that [spinoff] books and movies were a little more tied to the novels, either as sequels or retellings," said Sullivan. "Now we're seeing a lot of chick lit in which women use Austen and her world as a fantasy escape."

Sullivan's own book, a glossary and guide to social customs of Regency England, features a cover illustration of a young woman in jeans looking in a mirror to see herself in empire-waisted splendor, but is not meant to be aspirational, she said. Instead, she hopes it will serve as a companion volume that helps readers understand the social cues and status symbols so crucial to Austen's minute social critiques. "To me, the important thing is: Always go back to the novels," said Sullivan. "The movies are fun, the books are fun, but you always have to go back to Jane."

"Going back" is precisely the thing several of Sullivan's fellow Janeites seem to be aiming for rather more literally. There are currently three novels about 21st century women, single and bummed about it, who travel back to 19th century England to meet the perfect man (i.e., Fitzwilliam Darcy, in case anyone's still fuzzy on that).

In Laurie Viera Rigler's "Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict," heroine Courtney Stone falls asleep drunk in Los Angeles and wakes up in another woman's bedchamber and another woman's century. "Who are these people?" she wonders. "And what's with those outfits?"

Alexandra Potter's "Me and Mr. Darcy" is about bookstore manager Emily Albright, who, after a bad date that puts her over the edge, eschews a wet-T-shirty Mexico vacation with girlfriends in favor of a tour of Austen's England with a busload of old ladies. Though Potter didn't go in for all the fancy period-dress stuff, Emily does have a series of blackouts, dreams and possible stoned hallucinations in which she is wooed by Mr. D.

"Me and Mr. Darcy" offers a "Pride and Prejudice"-appropriate surprise. Graced with a gruesome chick-lit-by-numbers cover, it turns out to be one of the wittier of this summer's offerings, not to mention sharp and sad in its observations about what spinsterhood, identity and aging look like for women in 2007. Potter, a 37-year-old Brit currently living in Los Angeles, acknowledged that fantasizing about Regency England is more than a little twisted. "The feminists didn't fight this hard for us to be sitting around in corsets doing samplers, did they?" she said.

But, she added, "the fact is that everybody's sick of modern-day men, and everybody's guilty of looking for the perfect person, even if he's a fantasy." The Austen man, and Darcy in particular, she explained, "is going to love you forever. He's not going to bump into some 20-year-old in a bar. He's an honorable, chivalrous, upstanding man that is going to be a hard nut to crack, but once he falls in love with you, it's going to be forever ... He's not going to be into Internet porn. And he doesn't go for the prettiest girl in the room. He goes for Elizabeth Bennet, who is witty and sharp."

Part of what makes Potter's book unexpectedly charming is its, and her, understanding that, in fact, Darcy "doesn't exist" and that if he did, he'd probably be a crashing bore. "If you dated Darcy in real life, he'd be a big disappointment," she said. "'Brooding' equals 'miserable,' and Austen writes that he's proud, which would actually mean incredibly sexist, and he'd be glowering and rude."

In Shannon Hale's "Austenland," the author goes for broke, bypassing the dream sequence conceit in favor of full-bore fantasy immersion. Her heroine, Jane Hayes, attempts to quash her Firth obsession once and for all by vacationing at a Jane Austen theme park. No, it's not one in which if you don't marry a man of means by 25 you're branded a spinster and forced to live off the kindness of family for the rest of your life! (Coming soon: Woolf-Wharton Water Park, where visitors wade into a stream with pockets full of rocks and can be swept down a river of laudanum! Wheee!)

No, Hale's Austenland is simply a place where lonely, desperate women -- unfulfilled by the romantic opportunities available in a post-feminist universe -- can go to dress up in pretty clothes and play whist with handsome actors who simulate roguish grumpiness on command.

By phone, Hale said that she always loved Austen's novels, but that "it wasn't until I saw the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth that something changed and I fell completely in love with it -- with him." She added that she had friends who would watch the tapes twice in a Saturday "to the point where it was interfering with their normal relationships."

I asked Hale, who is 33 and lives in Utah with her husband and children, but calls her book "an ode to my single self," if she finds it odd that single women would fantasize about a period during which their freedoms were so limited. "It makes no sense at all," she said. "It's completely ironic and disturbing to me as a feminist that I still daydream about that era."

Hale, who talked about her single 20s as a time in which she couldn't even afford to purchase BBC videos, suggested that class fantasy plays a part in Austen fascination. "Especially for Americans, the idea of living in England, as part of the gentry, where you dress up in the morning and you have a maid do your hair and you put on a corset and there's this leisure living ... we fantasize about that!"

So ... corsets and a rigid class system. All those regressive bindings we have managed to slough off, at least to some extent. Who wouldn't want to live back then, anyway? (Also? No plumbing!) "It must speak to some more primal desire," said Hale. "It must speak to something inside of us that we lack."

Judging by the general tilt of this crop of Janeism, what Austen devotees seem to feel they lack is a man.

Even the movie "Becoming Jane," which stars Anne Hathaway as a spunky, proto-feminist Austen, looks to imbue the author's life, which to the best of our knowledge was man light, and certainly marriage free, with corset-straining ardor. The movie suggests that Austen's brief (and minimally documented, in a handful of surviving letters sent from Jane to her sister Cassandra in 1795) flirtation with lawyer Tom LeFroy was actually the passionate inspiration for "Pride and Prejudice."

Austen may have had love interests. She received at least one marriage proposal from a well-off family friend, which she accepted and then rejected the next morning. But the little surviving evidence does not suggest that her life was riddled with romantic assignations. It's odd to stretch a passing acquaintance with LeFroy into a passionate dalliance, and to suggest, in the absence of proof, that Austen could not have made up a love story without a Darcy of her own on which to base it.

Among all those T-shirts available for sale, the most common are ones that brand wearers as "Mrs. Darcy, Mistress of Pemberley," or "An Elizabeth in a Darcy-less World," or "Property of Mr. Darcy." One shirt is emblazoned with lines spoken by many of Austen's male creations, including Darcy's ejaculation, "You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

In the mad dash to find their Darcys (and to invent one for their favorite author) some readers and fans have forgotten that Austen regarded mushy female infatuation as side-splittingly funny. Though she wrote in the Romantic period, and though her plots conform to those of classic romance, Austen's work was not Romantic in style. Her heroines are not so much breathless and overcome by their emotions as they are practical and genuine. Elizabeth is never ga-ga over Darcy; when "Sense and Sensibility's" Marianne Dashwood goes all nutsy for dashing Willoughby, she is punished for her rain-soaked silliness with a cold that nearly kills her. And Austen's "Northanger Abbey" is a sendup of the popular Gothic novels with which her contemporaries were so obsessed.

Jan Fergus, professor of English at Lehigh University, said that readers seeking reassurance that soul mates are out there in Austen texts are missing part of the author's point. "Even though Austen writes all these romance novels, it's easy to imagine her characters living independently," Fergus said. "So they're missing the strength and independence and humor, which is in fact the only way you get through life. They're missing the absolute hilarity at the swooning and obsession. All these women think they are connecting to Jane Austen and they're actually channeling ["Emma's" goodhearted but painfully naive] Harriet Smith!"

Furthermore, were Austen not tickled by her besotted disciples, she might reasonably have been ticked.

Fergus described Austen's work as being "about the impossibility of a woman finding a home for herself, by herself, and the importance of home for a woman."

In Regency England, the search for Mr. Right may have taken place at candle-lit balls and in well-appointed drawing rooms, but it was not a game. As Austen wrote, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor." Inheritance laws meant that women could not inherit from their fathers, and women lived in real fear of having their homes pulled out from under them if they did not secure a husband of means, who hopefully would not die overseas in the Army, a fate that Jane's sister Cassandra's fiancé suffered. Even if women did marry well, to a clergyman for instance, nothing was secure. Upon his retirement or death, his family would be turned out of their home, as happened to Austen's father when he gave up his Hampshire parish. These are the threats and fears that drive Austen's heroines.

One of the great pleasures of female life in the 21st century, especially if you're of the class to which Austen belonged and into which she sunk her sharp teeth, is the possibility of earning your own living, of not having to land a man to survive financially, of no longer having to wear your need for a husband on your sleeve ... or tote bag or bumper.

There is a particularly grim shirt for sale bearing an image of Austen originally drawn by her sister Cassandra (who also never married after the death of her fiancé) above the caption, "Where's My Mr. Darcy?" To hold out for an affectionate union, as Austen did, was to put your future -- and your family's future -- at real economic risk, with no greater (and perhaps a lesser) guarantee of finding your Mr. Darcy than today's anxious singletons have. Fergus pointed out that Austen herself cautioned her niece in a letter that "there are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature You and I should think perfection. Where Grace & Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart & Understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a Man of Fortune, the Brother of your particular friend & belonging to your own Country."

In short, Fergus said, "Austen is not expecting Darcy to turn up, and if he turns up, she knows he's going to need a lot of reforming."

But thinking about all of this is taxing. And not nearly as much fun as thinking about Colin Firth in dripping breeches.

By phone, Sullivan said the trick is finding balance. "You can go too far" in Austen fantasy, she said. "That's one of the lessons of 'Northanger Abbey': that you can go too far with books, get far too lost in the fantasy. You need to keep things in perspective."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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