Jane Austen, TV, and me

by Henrietta Foster

9 May 2017

Ahead of her talk as part of British Academy Literature Week, Henrietta Foster, freelance producer/director for the BBC, writes about how TV adaptations of Jane Austen's novels can lead to a lifelong love of literature.

My first encounter with Jane Austen was at birth. My parents felt that if I found the names Henrietta or Sheridan too heavy to bear that I could always revert to my third name of Jane. My godmother was a life long Janeite and a close friend of her favourite author’s great niece Honoria Austen-Leigh. It was at her suggestion that I was called Jane. This led to a childhood of telephone calls between my godmother in Cambridge and me in Oxford about ‘our Jane’ as well as many gifts of books written about places associated with Miss Austen. My particular favourite was an Everyman book on Jane Austen’s Bath. I spent many a happy hour pouring over this slim grey volume - almost salivating at the prospect of a Sally Lunn or a slice of plum cake. A sprigged muslin empire line frock soon replaced my fixation on wanting above all things a white angora bolero - something my parents were determined that I should not have under any circumstances. Why was I condemned to wear purple corduroy trousers from Kids In Gear when a paisley pelisse and a straw bonnet with pale blue silk ribbons seemed to me to be the only possible attire? 

All this day dreaming was made much worse when I was introduced to the world of the BBC classic afternoon serial. My brothers were allowed to watch Doctor Who on Saturday and  my sisters and I were afforded a similar courtesy on Sunday afternoons. We’d sit in the playroom and become completely absorbed by the possibility of living at Kenilworth or Versailles and best of all Barton Cottage in the county of Devonshire. For me my first television experience of Jane Austen was Sense and Sensibility in 1971 with Joanna David as Elinor and Ciaran Madden as Marianne. My youngest sister was more than a bit fed up when she learnt that the third sister Margaret had been cut out in this version. All three of us were greatly appreciative of anything that featured three sisters - in later life we rarely miss a production of Chekhov for the same reason. But what I remember from that 1971 series was two beautiful young women in the much coveted sprigged muslin gowns and bonnets in a country garden. It was my abiding image of Jane Austen and if I am completely honest still is. I had tried to read the Pride And Prejudice that my godmother had given me one Christmas but was really was too young to appreciate Jane Austen so television was my first introduction to her world of unrequited love and genteel poverty. 

When the BBC asked me to produce a small film entitled Jane Austen at the BBC I was very eager to rediscover my Sense and Sensibility. There was a lack of authenticity that we now expect from our television series. The production felt very stagey and at times artificial. The costumes were obviously made on sewing machines and not by hand. The current TV dictum that in order to move like an early nineteenth century heroine one has to be dressed in clothes that could have been made then obviously did not apply in 1971 and I must admit that I was initially disappointed but then there it was. Somewhere in the middle of the series at the point where that dastardly Willoughby had left Marianne and she was distraught to distraction was my childhood moment.  Marianne and Elinor go to their cottage garden in order to be able to confide to one another.  Whilst Elinor messes around with wallflowers and pinks Marianne laments the loss of her own true love. The clothes, the hair, the make-up and the garden furniture may not have been period but I was suddenly that little girl in an arctic North Oxford basement sitting on my father’s knee thrilled by the magic of it all. 

That is the point of the television Austens - each one of us has their first experience of Austen on the box. My parents’s bridesmaid remembers vividly Vivien Pickles as Mrs Bennet in the 1967 Pride and Prejudice. School friends remember the wonderfully bitchy 1972 Emma whom surely no one could love not even a Mr Knightley who looked as though he was an extra from The Likely Lads. My niece - who belongs to the DVD generation - remembers watching the 1995 Persuasion with me on holiday in Norfolk and loving it so much that we decided to go on a day trip to Lyme Regis. It was not the same for my brothers or nephews - they could relate to Captains Courageous or The Black Tulip but Jane Austen was always a step too far for them. 

Watching over 60 hours of Jane Austen adaptations was a daunting challenge but a worthwhile one. It was fascinating to discover how the succeeding generations of BBC directors had a particular take on a scene or a character. It was not just the costumes that changed but the very characterisation of my beloved Marianne and Elinor. Marianne went from romantic heroine in 1971  to impulsive, unbearable, hyper-ventilating, nightmare in 1981 and then right back to romantic innocent in 2008. Elinor was always my favourite of the two sisters but she too changed from a kind of Susan figure from the Narnia chronicles in 1971 to an embryonic Mrs Danvers in 1981 to a lost soul in 2008. And let’s not even get into the objects of their affections….. well okay just a bit. Edward, Willoughby and Colonel Brandon went from rather stiff almost silent companions in the 1971 Sense and Sensibility to rather colourless residents of the Crossroad Motel in particularly poor 1982 adaptation. It wasn’t until the 2008 adaptation that the male Austen characters come into their own and one sees finally why the girls in the pretty dresses were lamenting over them in a summer garden full of sweet peas and trellis work.

Many may not approve of television drama and feel that the novels should be the first brush with an author but for those of us who belong to the television generation the BBC classic serials were the gate to a lifelong love of literature. My parents had  radio adaptations and before that there were the stage adaptations for my grandparents. Is it really so awful that my first sighting of Darcy was Laurence Olivier in the 1940 Hollywood version? No matter that he was also my first Heathcliff and Maxim de Winter. It does not really matter how you get to the novel as long as you get there. Television has been a faithful servant to Miss Austen as well as to countless other authors and that should be celebrated.

Henrietta Foster will join a panel to share highlights from the TV archive of Jane Austen on 16 May. For more information and to book tickets, visit: http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/austen-and-bbc

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