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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

This is your brain on Jane Austen

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration requires that medications carrying a substantial risk of dangerous side effects come with a statement outlined in black—a so-called “black box warning.”

 

Judging from the Hallmark Channel’s latest Jane Austen-themed movie, every Austen novel should come with a black box warning, too. Maybe something like “Danger: Excess Consumption of the Contents May Result in Pointless Dissatisfaction with Reality.”

 

The movie, An American in Austen, the third of four in Hallmark’s “Loveuary with Jane Austen” series, centers on Harriet (Eliza Bennett—yes, that’s really the actor’s name), a rabid Austen fan who pines for Mr. Darcy-level romance. One night, after semi-rebuffing a marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend, Harriet wishes on a shooting star and wakes up in the middle of Pride and Prejudice.

 

At this point, those of you who recall the 2008 ITV mini-series Lost in Austen--whose heroine, Amanda, is a rabid Austen fan who pines for Mr. Darcy-level romance and finds herself magically transported into Pride and Prejudice--may be experiencing a certain déjà vu. And, indeed, once inside P&P, both Harriet and Amanda encounter difficulties with Regency hygiene methods, stumble through country dances, bemuse their hosts with anachronistic references, and inadvertently interfere with the rollout of Austen’s familiar plot—in part by turning the head of Mr. Darcy himself.

 

It’s hard to believe that Cameron Johann, who wrote the screenplay for An American in Austen, was unaware of Lost in Austen—indeed, the similarity of the titles suggests homage. But as far as I could tell, nowhere does the new film acknowledge its debt to Guy Andrews’ earlier script. “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal?” Well, not exactly great. Adequate is more like it.

 

With less than ninety minutes to play with, An American in Austen doesn’t even try to cover the full arc of Austen’s story; you’ll wait in vain to meet Lady Catherine de Bourgh, visit Pemberley, or glimpse Georgiana Darcy. But Bennett brings an enjoyably astringent sarcasm to her fish-out-of-water role, and Hallmark’s usual low-budget production values are mostly camouflaged. (The Netherfield entryway does look suspiciously like a hotel lobby, though.)

 

Along the way, there are some funny moments. I giggled when Darcy tells Harriet that he is attracted by her “remarkably white teeth.” I snorted when Lydia Bennet, learning of another character’s elopement with George Wickham, exclaims in horror, “She’ll be ruined!” and Harriet replies, “That’s a little ironic, coming from you.” And I laughed for different, and perhaps not entirely intended, reasons when Sarah Ferguson—yes, that Sarah Ferguson, credited as an executive producer—shows up as a duchess (typecasting!) who is the guest of honor at Bingley’s ball.

 

Like An American in Austen, Lost in Austen can also be funny, although for my taste, its quotient of cleverness is inadequate to its three-hour run time. And its denouement, in which (spoiler alert!) Amanda leaves behind her unsatisfactory modern life, with its stressful commute, soul-crushing job, and boorish boyfriend, and decides to stay with Darcy in the (fictional) Regency past, strikes me as bizarre.

 

Yes, Amanda begins her journey by declaring, “It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape.” And I appreciate a good love story as much as the next girl. But what twenty-first-century woman could escape comfortably into life in an era that limited women’s choices in so many ways? Lost in Austen is fantasy, sure, but its unwillingness even to address this question makes its supposedly romantic ending fundamentally unsatisfactory.

 

An American in Austen sidesteps the problem by showing us from the start that Harriet has nothing to escape from: Her friends are warm and supportive, her job as a librarian is cozy and fulfilling, and her boyfriend is adorable and affectionate. Her only real problem seems to be a spot of writer’s block, since, like the heroine of Hallmark’s last Austen-themed movie, Harriet is a would-be novelist.

 

But all this joy and cheer means the movie has a hole where motivation should be: Why this lucky woman is pining for anything remains unclear, all the way through to the there’s-no-place-like-home denouement, in which (spoiler alert!) she makes her way back to the modern world.

 

In Jane Austen’s day, the novel, still a new-ish genre, was frequently regarded with suspicion. Novel-reading was caricatured as a frivolous pastime likely to distract women from their religious and familial duties and soften them up for seduction. No wonder Mr. Collins recoils in horror when offered a novel to read aloud, choosing instead a volume of sermons.

 

Today, we laugh at this moral panic, but it seems curiously close to the attitude An American in Austen takes toward Harriet’s reading. “I practically live in [books],” Harriet tells Darcy while browsing the shelves of the Netherfield library. “In some ways, the pages within these walls are just as much a part of me as my own skin and bones.” Back in her own time, she concludes, “I’ve spent my whole life escaping into stories because I’ve just been too afraid to be myself in this one.”

 

Why so afraid, so addicted to escape? No idea. I guess it’s just one of those dangerous side effects of Austen novels.

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Tram Chamberlain
Tram Chamberlain
Feb 20

i'm sure it's because you were short on space that you kindly overlooked the "bewitched" line that this darcy (who was bizarrely out of character, sometimes leaping on a table) quoted to our heroine. seems she's more conversant with the 2005 adaptation than with the actual lines jane austen herself wrote for darcy's 2nd proposal. but this is a long-running grievance (quoting adaptations as if written by austen) for us book readers, which i was hoping our librarian heroine was one. sigh.

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Feb 20
Replying to

Quoting Austen movie lines as if they come from the books is a longstanding pet peeve of mine, too (see the "Misquotations" subcategory on the blog menu if you want to check out some of my many past posts on this topic!) To be fair to An American in Austen, though, Austen does use the word "bewitched" in the book ("Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her" -- ch. 10) and this movie didn't resort to "bewitched me body and soul," which would be the real giveaway to 2005. (The main homage to P&P 2005 that I noticed was the Bennet women's race to clean up the sitting-room as guests arrive.) Darcy definitely was…

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