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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The dating game

Some weeks, it’s not clear what tidbit of gossip or news deserves mention as the biggest story in Jane Austen fandom.

Other weeks, a major streaming service announces plans for a Regency-themed reality dating series titled Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance.

“An as-yet-unknown heroine searching for love will be chosen to be a part of a groundbreaking social experiment to find her faithful duke,” the Peacock streaming service announced last week, in a press release (scroll down) designed to resemble formal stationery sealed with a dollop of lipstick-red wax. “With the help of her court, our heroine will determine who most deserves to vie for her heart. Only noble suitors are encouraged to take on this profound and thrilling quest, should they have the vigour [sic – ooh, so British!] to out-romance the rest.”

According to the show-biz bible Variety, it will all go down in a castle in the English countryside, with carriage rides, boating on the lake, archery, and handwritten letters standing in for contemporary dating tropes -- the Tinder hookups, the small talk in wine bars, the Google stalking and unsolicited sexts.

So. Many. Questions.

We’ll pass over the incidentals -- whether a completely artificial profit-maximizing gimmick qualifies as “a groundbreaking social experiment,” whether the participation of Peacock is a sly reference to this famous book cover, whether the female contestants will be required to provide their own corsets – and move on to the essential: Has anyone involved with this program ever cracked open a copy of Pride and Prejudice?

As numerous online commenters have already noted – because Peacock’s announcement instantly went viral, because of course it did -- Austen’s heroines don’t live in castles, hang around with a “court” (what is this, homecoming?), or marry dukes. Not a single Austen hero is so much as a lowly knight, let alone a hereditary peer.

And most Austen heroines experience some kind of economic or social precarity. “How is the woman with the mansion . . . . the one looking for her duke? Like, that just don't make sense!” novelist Brandon Taylor noted in this hilarious Twitter thread. “Why would she need to find a duke if she already got herself a mansion!!! Read a book!!!” (Oh, Brandon, honey. I’m with you. Why don’t they ever read the books?) “Like is Jane Austen like, white people's Get Out in that you just slap it on anything as a descriptor?” he wonders, farther down the thread. (That would be a yes.)

Indeed, if you read far enough into the series’ fifty-question casting call (sample queries: “When it comes to dating, is chivalry important to you?”; “Why do you think you are single?”; “Have you ever been arrested?”) it’s pretty clear that the Jane Austen branding was arrived at late in the development process: The lengthy legal release that each potential heroine and duke must sign, right after uploading a full-body photo and confirming availability for a seven-week shoot starting next month, refers to a program “currently entitled ‘The

Holiday.’ " Nary a mention of P&P in sight.

Afterthought or not, however, Austen – or at least that familiar popular image of her as an escapist romance novelist for tea-sipping Anglophiles -- is now a full partner in this enterprise. Before too long, we’re going to be treated to an unholy amalgam of Austenland, Bridgerton, and The Bachelorette – a threesome made somewhere in reality TV hell.

Needless to say, I will watch every episode.

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