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Undressing Mr Darcy? What would Mrs Bennet say!

PUBLISHED: 06:22 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:13 18 July 2017

An illustration from a historic edition of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Archant Library

An illustration from a historic edition of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Archant Library

Archant

Do you love Pride and Prejudice, or Emma? On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, we ask why she’s often lauded as Britain’s favourite novelist

Jane Austen fan Victoria Connelly. 'Jane Austen has such a lovely, warm, sense of humour. Her books were about joy and love,' Picture: VICTORIA CONNELLY Jane Austen fan Victoria Connelly. 'Jane Austen has such a lovely, warm, sense of humour. Her books were about joy and love,' Picture: VICTORIA CONNELLY

There’s something called Undressing Mr Darcy. Google it. A couple of ladies talk about the costume of the period and they literally take you down to the undergarments. That always goes down well with the fans. I saw that when I went to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. That was a real experience, and I thought ‘I have got to put that in my book.’”

This is author Victoria Connelly talking – raised in Norfolk, settled in Suffolk, and kindly agreeing to stand as a champion of Jane Austen. It was the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier as eligible bachelor Mr Darcy, that gripped her imagination. “Gorgeous black and white film; very romantic. It was more Gone with the Wind than Pride and Prejudice in terms of costume. A real Hollywood production. Fantastic. I thought ‘Wow! Got to read the book now.’”

Later, having become a novelist, Victoria created the Austen Addicts series, about (fictional!) fans of the 19th Century writer.

A Weekend with Mr Darcy came out in 2010 and has sold more than 100,000 copies. Set in modern times, it’s about an Austen specialist and an Austen fanatic – both living lives stuck in neutral –who attend the annual Austen conference in Hampshire.

The Perfect Hero (a woman invests in a B&B in Lyme Regis) was next, while Mr Darcy Forever is set during the Jane Austen Festival, with two estranged sisters. “It’s incredible,” says Victoria of that early autumn gathering. “Hundreds of people from around the world turn up, in costume, to promenade through the streets of Bath, and it’s such a wonderful sight.”

She understands the attraction.

“It just takes you back in time. It was a period of elegance and lightness. You had to be introduced to someone. Today, there are all these chatrooms and anyone can text anybody at any time; but then it was much more formal. I think that ‘age of manners’ is quite appealing.

Jane Austen, apparently - from an 1873 portrait painted long after her death Jane Austen, apparently - from an 1873 portrait painted long after her death

“I don’t do the costumes; but there are some serious fans out there. There’s actually a company that runs Pride and Prejudice tours, and they go to all the locations where the adaptations have been filmed. Fans come from America, Japan, all over the world. They go into a house and say things like ‘Did Elizabeth stand here when he said to her…?’” Victoria might not share that degree of obsession, but she knows where it’s coming from.

“Jane Austen has such a lovely, warm, sense of humour. She had such a wonderful sense of the ridiculous as well. Her books were about joy and love. Her characterisation is just so funny. It’s like she’s talking to the reader directly and sharing a joke.

“One of the first scenes between Mr and Mrs Bennet (in P&P) is so beautifully observed – this husband who has to endure his wife’s endless complaints about life, and her nerves. The humour leaps off the page.

“But I think it’s always the central love story that grips you. With Pride and Prejudice it always comes down to Mr Darcy, doesn’t it? I think it’s because he was willing to change for the woman he loved, and that’s a pretty strong aphrodisiac,” she laughs.

“He does it off-stage, actually. He acknowledges his faults and performs this incredible act of selflessness to help Elizabeth’s family. She finds out about it accidentally, and realises what he has done to make her life easier. And that’s so wonderful.

“With his first proposal, he suggests her family is far inferior to his, and he has fallen in love with her against his better judgment. It’s this terrible speech! She rejects him and he can’t understand why, and goes away and has a think about it. The second proposal is much better!”

To my mind it’s a rapid U-turn that doesn’t ring true!

Victoria Connelly at Jane Austen's House Museum, Hampshire, with the table-top on which Jane wrote by the window. Picture: VICTORIA CONNELLY Victoria Connelly at Jane Austen's House Museum, Hampshire, with the table-top on which Jane wrote by the window. Picture: VICTORIA CONNELLY

“Ah… but you’ve got to remember he’s a figment of female imagination – that he isn’t real; and it’s kind of Jane Austen’s idea of the perfect husband.

“It’s one of the classic love stories of ‘enemies to friends’. Shakespeare writes about it in Much To Do About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick, who are always bickering, always trying for one-upmanship, but they’re so well suited and the perfect couple.

“And (the film) When Harry Met Sally, and any romantic comedy, really, where you’ve got the warring hero and heroine and the audience knows they’re going to end up together, and sparks are flying. That’s pretty much Pride and Prejudice. ‘When are these two going to get together?’ That’s what keeps women turning the pages.”

So what exactly does Darcy have that appeals to females (and can I buy it at Boots)? “He’s got a very strong moral code. That’s very attractive. And, of course, that’s hidden. There’s an anti-hero called George Wickham, and he’s very charming and chatty. Elizabeth believes everything he says, but he’s just telling lies. He’s a charming devil, really.

“Mr Darcy is the strong, silent type. He’s not very good at expressing his emotions, but Elizabeth finds out about him from his housekeeper when the housekeeper says ‘Oh, he was such a gentle, amiable boy’, and Elizabeth’s thinking ‘What?’

“He’s very protective of his younger sister, and that’s a lovely trait. And he’d rather not bad-mouth anybody. He does good and walks away, whereas Wickham would say ‘Oh, I helped this old lady across the street’, and be in your face, and you’d think ‘Oh, what a lovely man.’ Whereas: not really. He’s a trickster.”

Some people dismiss Austen for writing about women who witter on about nothing... “She’s taken a lot of stick for setting her books on a small stage – which is what her readers love: that intimate portrayal of family life. She’s often criticised for not reflecting what was going on in the world. I’m no historian, but I think it was the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French revolution. But there were other writers to deal with that. She wrote from her own experience. She was a spinster in a small village. If you visit the Jane Austen museum (Hampshire) there’s a table by the window where she wrote. The view is just the garden and then a junction. I often think of that: little bits of the world coming her way. But it was a ‘small’ life. She wrote from the heart; of her own world. I don’t think she’ll go out of fashion. She’s perennially popular.”

The portrait of Jane Austen, by James Andrews, that will appear on the new Bank of England £10 note. The painting was commissioned by Jane Austen's nephew, the Rev James Edward Austen-Leigh, in 1869 and is based on the only confirmed portrait of her made during her lifetime. Picture: Laura Lean/PA The portrait of Jane Austen, by James Andrews, that will appear on the new Bank of England £10 note. The painting was commissioned by Jane Austen's nephew, the Rev James Edward Austen-Leigh, in 1869 and is based on the only confirmed portrait of her made during her lifetime. Picture: Laura Lean/PA

Imagine we can bend time and put Victoria in Winchester on July 18, 1817, in the room where Jane is slipping away, aged only 41, because of Addison’s disease (a problem with the adrenal glands) or perhaps Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Victoria knows then what she knows now. What would she whisper in the dying novelist’s ear?

“Oh… oh… ‘Thank you. I owe you. Thank you for all the joy your books have brought.’”

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