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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Of castles and chakras

When NBC announced last month that it had changed the name of its new Regency-themed dating show from Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance to the tragically generic The Courtship, I wondered whether I had lost my excuse for watching. I’m supposed to be writing a Jane Austen blog here, after all.

Phew! I needn’t have worried.

Mere seconds into last night’s premiere, Our Author had already been mentioned – “We’re in a Jane Austen movie, like, we’re in a fairy tale,” we heard the show’s love-seeking bachelorette protagonist, Nicole Rémy, insisting in voiceover – and before five minutes had elapsed, Austen had come up three more times, including in a comic paraphrase of the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. By the end of the hour-long episode, Austen's name had been dropped nine times, by my count.

Popular opinion may hold that The Courtship was inspired less by nineteenth-century fiction than by the runaway success of Netflix's Regency romance series Bridgerton, but while Austen came up often last night, Bridgerton never did—possibly because Jane Austen, unlike Bridgerton, isn't produced by a rival network.

Like Jane Austen’s novels, The Courtship will follow a young woman—in this case, a twenty-six-year-old software engineer from Seattle—as she seeks a life partner—in this case, from a pool of sixteen eager suitors assembled in a stately home (Castle Howard in Yorkshire) so palatial that not even Mr. Darcy could have afforded to maintain it. Since many weeks of winnowing lie ahead of us, I’m happy to report that Rémy is not only beautiful but also charming, open-hearted, and genuine, or at least excellent at faking these qualities on TV.

The Courtship’s conceit is that Regency etiquette and decorum--calligraphied letters sealed with wax, bows and curtsies, parental supervision--represent a refreshing change from the horrors of modern dating, with its heartbreak and Tinder hookups. No surprise, however, that in this first episode, the conventions of reality TV predominated over any version of Austen-era mores. Young women wore their hair down and their necklines low. The bare abs of two especially ripped suitors were on display before the first commercial break, and Rémy was sharing enthusiastic kisses with a third before the hour was up. Meanwhile, everyone spoke earnestly about seeking true love and deep emotional connection, as if the omnipresent camera crew posed no obstacle to same.

To the extent that Jane Austen has anything to do with all this, true to Rémy’s opening line, The Courtship owes more to Austen movies, and to the misleading image they promote of an Austen who is the patron saint of heterosexual romance, than to Austen novels. Preparing to toss out three of her prospects, Rémy ruminated in voiceover, “As Jane Austen wrote, I’m determined that nothing but the very deepest love could induce me into matrimony.” Alas, however, Jane Austen didn’t write that; Andrew Davies did, in the screenplay for the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

But the episode's most cringe-worthy Austen citation came as Jarrett Schanzer, a doctor from Miami, tried to persuade Rémy to keep him around. “ ‘It is not time or opportunity that determines love; it is energy alone,’ ” he murmured, as they proceeded through a rather awkward version of a country dance. “ ‘Seven years can be insufficient time for two to find love, seven days can be more than enough for others,’ in the words of Jane Austen.”

Well, Jane Austen did write something along those lines in chapter 12 of Sense and Sensibility--though the reference to “energy” is laughably un-Austenian–but she gave the speech to Marianne Dashwood, hardly a mouthpiece for the author's views. Still, by the end of the dance–after pressing Rémy to accept a rose-quartz pendant to “open up your heart chakra” and then, when she returned the gift and cut him loose, sulkily telling her she was “making a big mistake”--Schanzer managed to fully embody a Jane Austen character after all. Unfortunately for him, that character was Mr. Elton.

It was all somewhat silly--OK, it was very silly--but on the whole more fun than I expected. I’ll be back next week, whether or not Jane Austen is.

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