Friday, February 1, 2008

Writing and Repression: Jane Austen and the Bodice-Ripper

"What happened, I think, is that someone said they wanted it to be sexy. What they meant was the kind of sexuality that's in the book, the sexuality of repression.When you read the book, you know that everybody's horny -- all that flirtation and dancing and conversation, but nobody's going to get laid."

"I thought to myself: 'This is where he wants to go across the room and punch someone. This is where he wants to kiss her. This is where he wants sex with her right now.' I'd imagine a man doing it all, and then not doing any of it. That's all I did."

Lacy's vintage smut was is hard act to follow. And so, in a tight situation, who best to help me out but that sublimely sexy writer Jane Austen?

More precisely Jane Austen as channeled by screenwriter Andrew Davies as channeled by Colin Firth, as he spoke in various interviews more than a decade ago, trying to explain how he worked up the mojo to play Mr. Darcy in the 1995-6 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, soon to be showed once again in the current PBS Jane Austen fest.

Repression. What a concept.

And it works, too. Extraordinarily well. Skimming over the text of Pride and Prejudice, it's not the least bit of a stretch to to plug in Mr. Darcy wanting to kiss, have sex, etc.

Like at this moment:
...the pianoforte was opened; and Darcy, after a few moments' recollection, was not sorry for it. He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.
Or this:
But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying.

Oh yes. Mortifying will do very well indeed. In romance, we love a mortified hero, not to speak of one who "begins to feel the danger..." And we especially love it when the author has first introduced him in all his smug, hunky, thoughtless toughness and now shows his inner writhings and torments.

I've read that it was during the era of the bodice-ripper that this outer-to-inner revelation becomes popular romance convention. You know, stuff like (I'm improvising here), "He'd sailed the seven seas, plundered the Spanish Main. No one could master him at arms and yet... she... she.. this meek little chit of a tradesman's daughter. Why did she set him all aquiver... afire?"

Needless to say, it works better as filtered through Austen's her gorgeous little understated ironies. But it shows you why there are those who insist (especially when they feel they have to stick up for the genre) that Jane Austen was a romance writer.

I suppose you can say that she was, in this way, at least in her spare time when she wasn't inventing the modern novel. She didn't invent the moment when the hero reveals his hot inner anxieties and arousals (I think it might have been Richardson who did that, in Clarissa) but she did it so deftly and demurely that she can take your breath away.

And provide stage directions for guys in waistcoats and tight pants for the next couple of centuries as well.

Note: I took the Firth quotes from this article. And while you're at it, you won't regret reading this wonderfully witty piece on Austen by Martin Amis.

So, are you doing the TV Austen fest?

Do you agree that Austen might have been an influence on the bodice-ripper authors? Or do you think I ought to be pilloried for suggesting such a thing?

8 comments:

Celia May Hart said...

Austen an influence on bodice-rippers? As much as any of us are inspired by her. Which is to say yes, sort of.

I have the Austen PBS stuff DV-Red, just waiting for the spouse to be in a mood to watch it with me. He remembered to record the first one, after all.

Jane Lockwood said...

Jane Austen was NOT a romance writer and it makes my blood boil whenever I hear someone simper, "Romance Author X--or Regency or Regency-set romance writers--is/are the Jane Austen of the 21st century." *
Whew. That feels better. Thanks, Pam.
Why? Because rather than reinforcing our beliefs about love, marriage, family, which I think most romance does, she challenged preconceptions. She was daring, sexy, subversive, and subtle; although she ultimately delivers the reinforcement in the form of the happy ending, she makes you work before you receive the reward.

* the J. Austen of the 21st century? Anna Maxted, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby.

Pam Rosenthal said...

More than sort of for me, Celia.

And then there's Jane. Wow, Jane. Well put -- and I'm glad I was able to get a rise out of you; I was sure trying for one.

But I do think that P&P has a great deal in common with romance fiction, tho I like your distinction between them, too. I think perhaps it occupies a very unique position -- at once so specific and probable and yet having a kind of fairy-tale inevitability (because it's very much like a fairy tale of changelings and spells that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet could have produced Elizabeth). Or see my other Friday sickbed post at History Hoydens where I was trying to work the same logic from the other side.

Kate Pearce said...

Jane, if you have something to say, just say it girl :)

I do think JA had an influence on the modern romance writer. Most of us have read her, and most of us take away, particularly from P&P that it is a love story, granted, with a lot of subtle digs at class and character and society in general, but overall, for most readers it's still a story about love triumphing over all the above.

I'd also call it women's fiction and the chick lit of its time. The fact that we are all still referencing JA and watching her in so many different ways, shows me that as a writer she means many things to many people.

I love the subtle nature of the Colin Firth Darcy, the conflict and repression are clear in his body language and his eyes.

Jane Lockwood said...

But in answer to your question, Pam, I think Austen nailed the device of the happy ending against all odds, so yes, she's had such a huge influence on writers ever since. I think she made a shift from the HEA that reinforced the status quo, i.e. a marriage of social acceptability, to the marriage of true minds--and maybe romance is doing a bit of both.

It's interesting that George Eliot, who is never accused of being a romance writer said that she thought the beginning of the story, not the end, was the marriage.

The Amis piece is wonderful. I went from laughing at the beginning to crying at the end. Thanks for that link, Pam.

(Loved Northanger Abbey, mystified by the pallid Mansfield Park, glad I missed most of Persuasion after seeing the feeding-the-baby-bird kiss at the end.)

Jane, Pavlovian in a non-tutu way.

Pam Rosenthal said...

The fact that we are all still referencing JA and watching her in so many different ways, shows me that as a writer she means many things to many people.

Indeed, Kate. And that we ought not annex her to what we're doing, but while we recognize her as a highly legitimate source, we ought not annex her to what we're doing, but also recognize in her what we're not. As Jane Lockwood says.

I'd also suggest (having had the thought some very few minutes ago) that Lizzy Bennet is able to get beyond the odds of her awful parenting because of her selfless love for her beautiful, somewhat anodyne sister. Pairs of loving sisters bootstrapping themselves into successful adulthood is a very 19th century theme (almost inaccessible to us now, I'd hazard). Which makes me more eager than ever to read Sharon Marcus's highly praised study, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England.

E. M. Selinger said...

My mama warned me never to lock horns with a Lockwood, but here goes!

Jane, you wrote: "rather than reinforcing our beliefs about love, marriage, family, which I think most romance does, she challenged preconceptions. She was daring, sexy, subversive, and subtle; although she ultimately delivers the reinforcement in the form of the happy ending, she makes you work before you receive the reward."

You've assumed, here, that what makes a romance "a romance" is an ideology--or, rather, a stance towards one, called "our preconceptions."

I don't buy it. That's like saying that what makes a sonnet a sonnet is its stance towards our beliefs about love, rather than its 14 lines in this or that meter or rhyme scheme. (And even those become quite varied, as the genre evolves.)

Pam Regis's definition of "romance" through plot elements seems to me much more useful. For one thing, it lets us distinguish varieties and possibilities within the genre, which can be used both to "challenge preconceptions" and to "reinforce our beliefs." It often does a little of both: thus the original bodice-ripper, The Flame and the Flower, features a remarkable mix of progressive and conservative beliefs, new wine in old bottles and vice versa.

When a romance looks like it's declaring "Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same," it's worth checking to see whether it's Phin or Sophie running for office.

I'm also skeptical as to whether books that "challenge preconceptions" and "make you work for it" [OK, you didn't say "for it"!] are necessarily better or more interesting than ones that don't--but that's another argument!

P.S. re: Lizzie Bennett. I don't see her as quite so distant from her family, Pam. My sense is that Austen wants us to see the dangers of a poor match, the way that a marriage changes its members, for better and for worse. Lizzie is what Mr. Bennett might once have been, and even might have remained, with a more suitable spouse. A bad marriage would bring out the worst in her and dull the best--as it would for Darcy. Indeed, Charlotte Lucas seems to me to be negatively influenced by Mr. Collins as the novel progresses, although I'd have to double-check the text to recall what gave me that impression the last time I taught it!

Pam Rosenthal said...

Actually, Eric, I got the genesis of that point about P&P from Regis. I mean, she doesn't say that exactly, but she quotes something interesting from Judith Newton...? Don't remember... can't find the book... am going back to bed with with my cold and the Times Crossword... will have to wait for my upcoming 20 minutes of fame to sort it out.