Page to Screen: Lost in Austen (2008)

Lost in Austen
based on
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I was pretty much speechless after watching Lost in Austen with a friend of mine; we ended up watching Saturday Night Live, well, live as we recovered. Lost in Austen is unique in that it’s the first Mary Sue Self Insert Fic television miniseries I’ve ever seen and will possibly ever see. (Kiss your productivity goodbye!) It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, to be totally honest—since Mary Sue Self Insert Fics are an important rite of passage in the lives of preteen fangirls, it felt like reading some (remarkably literary) thirteen year old’s diary. It’s… something to be experienced.

Lost in Austen follows the life of Amanda Price, a young Londonite whose deep, deep love for Pride and Prejudice is at odds with her decidedly unromantic boyfriend, Michael, who tries to propose to her while watching a football game on the television—while drunk. But one day, Amanda discovers a strange girl in her bathroom—Elizabeth Bennet, who has discovered a door in her house that terminates in Amanda’s bathroom. Elizabeth tricks Amanda into going into the world of Pride and Prejudice, and the two switch places. While Amanda tries to keep her head down, she soon derails the romance between Jane and Bingley, and her efforts to restore the novel into working order further changes things, as well as her growing attraction to a one Mr. Darcy. Will Amanda ever get this novel back on track and herself back home? (And what on earth is Elizabeth doing in modern London?)

Now, when I say Mary Sue Self Insert Fic, the fannish among you are probably already running for the hills. In the days of The Lord of the Rings fandom’s film boost, stories about perfect American girls getting into the movies and making out with Legolas were a dime a dozen. But Guy Andrews—as much as I hate to be gender essentialist, I’m still flummoxed that a man wrote this—takes this tired concept and breathes new life into it by actually following it through. Amanda Price, while not as rounded as I like my characters and is, of course, underappreciated by the people in her real life, is still a fairly regular girl. While she can’t exactly come out and tell Bingley and Darcy where she’s from, she’s extremely aware of the influence Pride and Prejudice has had on her life; Amanda’s been in love with Darcy since she was twelve. I do have to call shenanigans, however, on the fact that Amanda seems to not be aware that Jane Austen wrote anything else. She has to learn to fit in and play the games of society in order to survive—Mrs. Bennet eventually turns Amanda out of the house, disgusted with the effect she’s having on the young Misses Bennet. While the ending is still straight out of a classic Mary Sue Self Insert Fic, there’s some thought behind it, and the characters have to earn their ending, no matter how ridiculous it is. How ridiculous, you might ask? Amanda makes Darcy reenact the famous wet shirt scene from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Yes, really.

Jemima Rooper does well as Amanda, making the usual time travel difficulties feel natural; as an enormous fan of Pride and Prejudice, she can navigate, but not nearly as well as she thinks she can. (She ends up having to convince Bingley she’s gay so that he’ll pursue Jane and not her—it’s not her fault, it’s her boobs. Yes, really.) I picked this up on the strength of Alex Kingston, my beloved River Song, and she doesn’t disappoint, managing to give Mrs. Bennet some humanity and backbone while still overacting. It’s quite amazing. Huge Bonneville’s Mr. Bennet is darling; Guy Andrews writes wonderful dialogue for him and expands on his character well. Tom Mison makes for a sweet Mr. Bingley, although Amanda’s attempts to put the novel back on track soon changes that, and Darcy is played quite broodingly by Elliot Cowan, described by my friend as the British Matt Damon. Lost in Austen makes Wickham, Caroline Bingley, and even Lady Catherine into sympathetic characters, revealing things that, as Amanda puts it, Jane Austen would have been shocked to learn she’d put in there. (Mr. Collins, however, becomes hideously repulsive and creepy here.)

This production mimics BBC adaptations of Austen’s work, even using a lot of the same costumes, and Regency England contrasts favorably against modern London—Amanda’s busy London neighborhood, Hammersmith, isn’t even a part of London in the novel. Lost in Austen reminded me of The Eyre Affair, wherein literary agent Thursday Next accidentally changes the ending of Jane Eyre in her efforts to get the kidnapped character back into the book. However, Next’s universe’s original Jane Eyre ends differently before she interferes; her interference results in the Jane Eyre we know today. Watching Lost in Austen made me want to see something like that occur, but, alas, no—we have to have an story that feels, no matter how well developed, like it’s coldly calculated at an Austenite demographic that doesn’t read much else.

Bottom line: The first Mary Sue Self Insert Fic television miniseries that I’ve ever seen. While Guy Andrews does develop the idea of a modern girl switching places with Elizabeth Bennet organically and the cast is pretty solid (including England’s answer to Matt Damon, Elliot Cowan), I can’t shake the feeling that it’s coldly calculated at an Austenite demographic that doesn’t read much else. Kind of surreal.

I rented this DVD from my college library.

19 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Lost in Austen (2008)

  1. I think I felt much the same about this as you do, although I’ll raise the stakes and say I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was calculated to appeal to people who’ve seen the miniseries a million times and maybe read the book once (and not much else). It was a disappointment because so many people whose taste I trust had loved it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to be much more than mildly amused. I might have liked it better had I just happened across it without hearing lots of praise ahead of time (although it’s not the kind of thing I’d try without a push, so there we are).

  2. Yikes. I read about this when it was first shown on TV in the UK, but never watched (don’t have a TV) and never felt in the least tempted to buy the DVD. Is it wrong of me to admit that I liked Col. Fitzwilliam better than Darcy in the book and the mini-series?

    A televised version of The Eyre Affair, however, would be much better (I love Fforde’s books)!

  3. Ever read Woody Allen’s short story, The Kugelmass Episode? It’s about a magic cabinet that will put you inside of any book or short story. A bored, middle aged Jewish man wreaks havoc in the world of Madame Bovary. If I had that cabinet, I’d go solve mysteries with Holmes and Watson.

  4. Jane Austen bores me. I know that this is a matter of personal preference and I do not mean to disparage those who adore her, but I do not understand why she has such a vast, dedicated, modernized/millenial-generation fandom. Similar authors like Charlotte Bronte, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray get so much less love that it makes me glum sometimes. Please to explain this, someone?

    • She’s a very cutting and witty writer; in my favorite Austen, Northanger Abbey, even the heroine gets a few affectionate barbs thrown her way. (I also love it because the narrator is a character unto herself; a Gothic narrator stuck with a young, excitable, but still sensible heroine to herd. It’s hilarious.) She takes shots at society and gender roles while providing organic romance at her best. That’s why I like her, although Mansfield Park has some horrifying implications. (Also: incest. I don’t care if it was kosher back in Regency England, marrying your first cousin is incest.)

      I do think the modern surge in Austen madness has more of a shallow focus on the romance and the male love interests, for which you can blame the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. For readers who focus on the romance, there’s a bit more prestige in getting your kicks from Austen rather than a modern romance writer; you can hold your head up in company with Austen, you know? There’s some very interesting and occasionally problematic stuff in Austen’s work about class and gender, and I really wish people would dig deeper into it if they do like it. It’s a subjective thing, ultimately, but she’s earned her place in the Western canon.

      While I agree about the rest (especially Thackeray), I feel Brontë has a comparable fandom, when you adjust for the fact she wrote less books than Austen did—there have been sixteen film adaptations and ten television adaptations of Jane Eyre.

  5. I totally agree that Austen is better older. I read Pride and Prejudice when I was fifteen and liked it okay. I reread it when I was twenty and absolutely loved it. I think the benefit of being Elizabeth’s age and then having had more exposure to the cultural context and other literature of the period really heightened my appreciation of the book. Jane Austen can be be dead-on and sharper than anyone else from the period.

    Oh, yeah. . .I’ve been debating whether or not I should ever touch this miniseries. I think I will avoid gladly.

  6. I think you all are just a tad snobbish. I have seen the mini-series, the movie, and have read all of Austen’s books except Emma. I have read Pride and Prejudice at least 30 times–and I liked this little series. After reading the original so many times, it was refreshing to see the story take a new twist. In all fiction, one has to suspend their own reality in order to enjoy the story.

    Raptor

  7. Pingback: Review: A Breath of Eyre « The Literary Omnivore

  8. I remember seeing this on ITV a few years ago. At first it seemed like ITV were poking fun at the BBC productions, but the premise was original, for a JA fan like myself anyway. I think the series was just a three parter, but it was rather funny at times and the lead actress was endearing.

    I found the switch between JA’s world and Hammersmith odd, to say the least, but at least it was something different to watch. I admit to losing interest halfway between episode two, but I remember it fondly all the same because it is based on the works of one of my fave authors.

    Haven’t we all been lost in Jane Austen at some point?

  9. I felt a bit guilty enjoying this mini-series SO thoroughly, but I have to say I loved every single tiny self-indulgent detail of it, and I am really grateful to the people who made it for making such a wonderfully fluffy and enjoyable piece for my “demographic” as you choose to call it. I think it’s like “cookie dough” ice cream. Of course one is not meant to eat cookie dough out of the bowl, but some of us really really love it, and the idea that someone else loves it too, enough to put it in ice cream and sell it to us without raw eggs in it – well, that is just too good to be true. For the record, I really do not love Jane Austen, but having had a similar experience with the novel “David Copperfield” and also with several other novels over the course of my life, I do not think this film is aimed at Austen fans, but at all of us who have ever gotten lost in a heavily period piece of fiction, and wished they could fall into it. I had no idea it was a genre – this “self-insert” fic, but I loved this incarnation of it. As for getting to make vicarious love to a fictional character – come on, why not? It’s FUN! Go on and make fun of my decided lack of intellectual pride – I will sit back with my cookie dough ice cream and call it vanity, while watching this delightful mini series for the third time.

    • Do not feel one iota of guilt! If you enjoy it, there’s nothing wrong or silly about it. I’ve softened over the last three years on that sort of thing. What really surprised me was seeing something I’d been familiar with since childhood—Self-Insert fics—actually being produced by a mainstream television company. Because I am so used to that genre, it was easier for me to pick out elements I’d seen executed better in other examples. Sort of like how I didn’t like The Song of Achilles, because I was reading it in the context of a youth spent on reading incredibly generic boys’ love manga unlike most other reviewers.

      Did you know that Lost in Austen will soon be a film?

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