On this day in 1995, a nation glimpsed Colin Firth’s nipples
peeking through THAT SHIRT,
It was not until the 20th century that Austen was celebrated for her biting social criticism; not until the 1970s that she emerged as the subversive heroine of feminist literary studies. Today, the Jane Austen brand is certifiably global. This is thanks in part to Andrew Davies’ iconic (and sexy, for bonnet-ville) BBC mini-series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
If the word that was plastered over billboards across the country nearly a decade ago (Rickyyyyy), was implicitly understood by most of the nation to herald the return of Bianca and Ricky to Eastenders, so does mention of ‘that shirt; that lake’ conjure the image of Colin Firth, striding across a field, riding crop in hand (the latter I presume a boon to erotic fan fictionites, forever on the quest to explore the nuances of the Darcy-Bennet postmarital bed).
For anyone of slightly younger years who hasn’t seen it, let me paint the scene:
Firth, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, returns from a long horse ride to Pemberley, his sprawling estate. He is hot, sweaty, brooding. He stands at the edge of a lake. Pensive. Has he farted, has he thought of Lizzie? Who knows. We know. He takes away his overcoat. Why does one need an overcoat when you’re looking down the barrel of a…lake. He philosophises, presumably preoccupied with his lady love, and then, with the rousing crescendo of the music, he dives into the water, wearing nothing but his breeches and THAT SHIRT.
Firth’s post-diving, pec-tacular prancing – Davies’ insertion into the fourth episode to ramp up the sexual tension between the two lovers – evokes what the litany of references to flushed faces, flirtatious dancing and muddy skirts in Austen’s text can only imply.
Andrew Davies made attainable what the novel makes allusive;
When Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie Bennet, bright eyed and blushing, mainly managing to meet Darcy’s eyes and not his Regency rack, meets Fitzwilliam and his shirt, one can imagine the infamous Miriam Margoyles anecdote about Lawrence Olivier coming to life (watch for Matthew Perry’s awkwardness alone). And if Lizzie were to turn around to us, mouth slightly agape, face flushed, and say, “Do you know what I mean?” We, as viewers, are all Gemma Arterton; “Oh, I know exactly what you mean.”
In injecting some hormones into the Regency romp, “any legitimate excuse to get some of that kit off” said Davies, the series launched Colin Firth as the quintessential poster boy for a certain brooding, bonnet-Britishness and reminded its audience that Pride and Prejudice isn’t just a straight-laced social comedy, it’s about desire and youth.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged,
that a single man in possession of a good fortune,
will probably have had a few lascivious liaisons
before he sets out to land a wife.
Austen’s tales rely on an acknowledgment of men’s sexual appetites. All the rich kids with big houses are copping a feel under the covers before discussing chinaware patterns.
But that is not to say that women don’t engage in their own enjoyment. The minxiest ladies are also often the ones who laugh the most. Lydia Bennet, notorious eloper and premarital sinner, is always in fits of giggles. Austen knew as well as most, that human are driven by sexual appetites, and that those appetites are hella fun.
In making Darcy an explicit sex object – although, let’s just say there are limits to this. Firth didn’t have any of the ridiculous expectations and scrutiny that the media now place on the male form, the same expectations of course that have been placed on women for, well, ever. He is also, after all, in a shirt not shirtless, and a baggy one at that – Davies highlighted the implied power of the female gaze in Austen’s novels.
He made it clear that Austen wrote a world in which women’s power, arguably their only power, lay in looking back.
Davies presents the optimistic portrayal of Austen
as an early champion of a feminist perspective.
You don’t have to be a gender studies graduate to be familiar with the term ‘the male gaze’, coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975 to describe film created through the lens of a heterosexual male. It’s a gaze so common in Western media as to be self-explanatory; Cameron Diaz’s first appearance in The Mask springs to mind. 200 years after Austen put her quick wit and razor sharp quill to paper, the female gaze still remains a somewhat innovative and nascent concept in filmic culture.
That being said, it is having a long overdue moment, as an explosion of original content on the small screen has led to better opportunities for female writers and directors. A growing number of shows are transforming women from the object of desire into subject of the action: from The Hanmaid’s Tale to Broad City, Girls, Outlander, Transparent, Fleabag, Insecure, Harlots, Jessica Jones and I Love Dick.
As Zoe Williams wrote recently, the big screen has some catching up to do in its honest portrayals of female sexuality and the female body, and to place female stories at the centre of the screen, but Trainwreck, Bridesmaids and to some extent and in some respect, the Mikes both Magic and Magic XXL, have paved the way.
The story is Lizzie’s: she is the subject, Darcy is the object.
By choosing to imbue the Pemberley scene with a pre-Magic Mike form of objectification, Davies captured something of the narrative perspective of Pride and Prejudice. Although written in an omniscient third-person voice, Lizzie’s lens is really the one through which we see Hertfordshire life in all its gossiping splendour.
His decision might be said to stand in contrast to Harold Pinter’s decision to omit Offred’s interior monologues from the 1990 film adaptation ofThe Handmaid’s Tale, much to star Natasha Richardson’s reported frustration. As Meredith Blake wrote in the La Times, his decision wasn’t controversial in the slightest, for “techniques like voice-over are frequently denigrated as “bad writing” seemingly ripped from the pages of a diary”. And as Jill Soloway argues, this is often only the case when they’re deployed in female stories.
A woman of her time, Jane (and her heroines) looked at men and saw a pocket book, pound signs a pile of bricks sure, we can’t completely divorce her from her era; but in the fantasy world when Elizabeth and Darcy meet at that moment on the estate, Davies highlights that the writer saw sex too. So, although Austen is mostly associated with pseudo-Panopticon ballroom dance floors (where surveillance is the name of the game) and drawing room discussions, she was also an early champion of acknowledging female desire: a key feminist perspective.
In placing women at the centre of the story, in all their twisted judgmental messiness, Jane was at the helm of the pop culture of the 21st century. She was the Madonna of the 18th century, a proto-Lemonade era Beyonce singing, “Est-ce que tu aimes le sex?”
She just did it between the lines.
On the female gaze in Beyonce’s Lemonade, Allie Gemmel has written:
“We’re so used to absorbing media through the male perspective and through the attitudes of men, but in Lemonade, that’s forcibly reversed. Women face the camera, allowed to stare back into the lens and penetrate the fourth wall. Women are allowed to move safely among themselves and congregate in spaces where men simply don’t exist, let alone occupy the spotlight.”
It is a line that, arguably, can be traced from Austen’s women, busting a move across the floor of a ballroom, eyeing the men lining the outskirts, to those now taking control of how they are seen and what they want to see.
And by allowing her women to see, to return the gaze, Austen makes them occupy the spotlight in their own lives.
Remember when Jay-Z sparked controversy on his album 4.44 with the lyrics; “I apologise, often womanise / Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes”? Pick up some Austen mate.
If Darcy ever strayed, I can just imagine Lizzie, synthesising the breaks in her heart to the beats of her pianoforte, not rasping “Why don’t you love me?” (à la Beyonce’s Glasto performance with full head banging, hair flipping, stage thumping, dance routine, 4 minutes in…if you’re interested), but rather “Who the f**k do you think I am? / You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.”
Now, a film about Austen and Beyonce? Andrew…over to you.
From Austen to Beyonce in three steps: Jennifer Ehle played Elizabeth Bennet…she also played Carla Wilkes in Fifty Shades of Grey…the title song of which was penned by….Beyonce.
The art of being seen versus looking in ‘Pride and Prejudice’
the 21st century cult of romance.