Has Colin Firth Finally Outrun Darcy?

Colin Firth as George V.

Colin Firth as George VI.

It’s been quite a week for Colin Firth. The 50-year-old British actor got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He won Best Actor honors at both the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards for his performance as the stammering King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” And critics and fans predict that he’ll take home the Best Actor Oscar in March. (The nominations won’t be announced till January 25, but Firth is sure to be on the list.) UPDATE: Colin Firth did indeed win the Oscar for Best Actor, though the Academy passed over Geoffrey Rush for supporting actor.

For three decades, Firth has given solid performances, ranging from comic to tragic, in a wide range of films, including “Valmont,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Love Actually,” “Fever Pitch,” “Nanny McPhee”, “Mamma Mia,” “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “A Single Man” (which garnered him an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win in 2009 for Best Actor).

But the role for which he has been most famous is that of Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s beloved 1995 production of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Firth brought Mr. Darcy to life, and sent legions of female fans into a swoon when he emerged from a pond in a wet shirt. He followed up with a modern version of Darcy in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” For many (mostly female) fans, Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy, and vice versa.

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Samuel Clemens vs. Jane Austen: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Chicago Examiner recently ran a fun list of the “50 Best Author vs. Author Putdowns of All Time.” The collection of gloriously vicious insults includes one of Mark Twain’s many stabs at Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain in 1909

The irascible Mark Twain never tired of skewering Jane Austen.

Twain (Samuel Clemens to his friends and family) also wrote that “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” and lamented that “it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

Ironically, that sounds just like the kind of barbed stuff Austen would write. Twain and Austen are two of my favorite authors, precisely because they are so adept at throwing literary darts. Austen had a much narrower focus and a much more contained life than did Twain, but in a lot of ways they aimed at similar targets.

I find Twain’s reference to “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” a trifle suspicious. Just how many times did he read it, anyway? I’m not the only one to think that perhaps Twain doth protest too much about Austen. An essay some years back in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” suggested that Twain’s hatred of Austen may have been at least partly a pose, and that he may have realized (albeit reluctantly)  that he and Austen shared a similar disdain for fools.

As for Twain, he didn’t escape skewering by other authors, either. William Faulkner called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” Ouch!

The Bitch in a Bonnet

Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.

I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.

As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.

But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.

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A Feast of Austen and Zombies

prideandzombiesIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single reader in possession of a good Austen zombie romance, must be in want of more. It is only a matter of time before we are imposed upon by Northanger Abbey and Vampires. Mansfield Park and Werewolves. Emma and the Exorcist.

Yes, I have succumbed to that plague sweeping the land: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has infested so many that the book, by Jane Austen with a bit of help from screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, is on the New York Times bestseller list.

The genius of this novel (and I use the term loosely) is that 85 percent of it is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, word for word. The remaining 15 percent is zombies (or unmentionables, as the residents of Regency England prefer to call them) and ninjas. (Ninjas? Yes, really. But then again, who could do a better job of warding off the undead?) Elizabeth catches Darcy’s fancy for the liveliness of her wit and her superior fighting skills. Darcy’s pretty good at beheading zombies himself, though not quite as much a fighting legend as his fearsome aunt, Lady Catherine.

Published this spring and billed as a book that “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also illustrated with disgusting drawings of zombies and ninjas doing, well, what zombies and ninjas do.

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Jane Austen Popular as Ever with Filmmakers

Next to Shakespeare, Austen is one of the most widely adapted English writers. The plots of her novels have been modernized, satirized, idolized, and revised every which way. And she’s as popular as ever, judging by projects in the works:

  • The BBC is once again filming a mini-series of “Emma,” for release this fall. The four-part series stars Romula Garai (“Atonement”) in the title role, with Jonny Lee Miller (who played Edmund Bertram in 1999’s “Mansfield Park”) as Mr. Knightley. We last visited “Emma” in 1996, which saw the release of both a BBC miniseries (starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong) and a feature film. I’m not sure anyone can top the latter, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s delightfully dizzy Emma and Jeremy Northam’s devastatingly charming Mr. Knightley, but more of “Emma” can never be a bad thing. Thanks to the folks at Pemberley.com, you can see set photos of Romula Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. And there’s a video slide show of the filming in Kent on YouTube.
  • After having fun with the popular and highly regarded “Bride and Prejudice,” Bollywood is tackling “Ayesha,” the Indian equivalent of “Emma.” “Slumdog Millionaire” star Anil Kapoor is producing, and his daughter, Sonam Kapoor, plays the title role and Abhay Deol is her Mr. Knightley.

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Pride and Prejudice in the Twitterverse

darcytwitter

How would Austen’s most famous novel read if Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy forged their relationship on Twitter? Under the Mad Hat has answered that question with a clever retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a series of tweets. As a fellow writer, I appreciate the skill involved, and think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages.

I have to wonder—could this be where fan fiction is headed? Who has time to write 60-chapter adaptations of one’s favorite work, when one could simply tweet the whole thing?

Please note: The above Twitter profile for Mr. Darcy exists only in my fevered imagination and the file I created in Photoshop. There is a user called Darcy on Twitter, but I haven’t the foggiest idea who he/she is, except that it’s almost certainly not Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley.

Mr. Darcy as Prince Charming? Not Exactly

There’s this notion floating around that Fitzwilliam Darcy is a fantasy, a real Prince Charming. I find that interesting.

Like many a woman, I love Mr. Darcy dearly. He is one of my all-time favorite fictional guys, and I don’t blame Lizzy for falling for him. He’s intelligent, honorable, loyal and has a sense of humor, even if he often hides it. And he loves Elizabeth Bennet with every ounce of his being.

But much of Mr. Darcy’s appeal for me lies largely in the fact that he is not a fantasy. Yes, he’s tall, handsome and worth a fortune, but that is not why Lizzy falls in love with him. In demeanor, personality and social skills (or more accurately, lack of social skills), he’s a very real guy with plenty of flaws. You just know that Jane Austen knew more than a couple of men like that. We all know guys like that: good, loyal men who bottle up their emotions and who couldn’t make small talk if their lives depended on it.

Mr. Darcy is aloof, arrogant and exceptionally rude the first time Elizabeth meets him. He represses his emotions to the point that Lizzy is shocked to hear that he is in love with her. His idea of a marriage proposal is to belittle his would-be fiancee’s family, explain just how low he’s stooping in marrying her, and then act surprised that she feels insulted by his honesty. Way to go, Darcy.

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Pride Gone with the Wind

The budget was tight (there was  a war on, after all) and legend has it that many of the costumes were borrowed from the previous year’s “Gone with the Wind.” The studio favored Clark Gable for the male lead, and Vivien Leigh was in the running, at least briefly, to play Elizabeth Bennet, though Greer Garson got the role.

Yes, it’s Longbourn meets Tara, better known as the 1940 version of “Pride and Prejudice.” Fortunately, Rhett Butler does not re-materialize as Mr. Darcy—the role went to Laurence Olivier—though Vivien “Miz Scarlett!” Leigh might well have made quite a feisty and lively Lizzy.

Somehow I had escaped seeing the 1940 movie of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel until recently. My first inclination was to laugh at the costumes. At any moment, I expected Lizzy Bennet to tear down the draperies to make a dress. My second inclination was to cringe at what MGM had done to Austen’s marvelous love story. While they kept much of her dialogue, they threw out some of the best lines, and dulled her sharp, sometimes caustic wit with a typically syrupy Hollywood story.

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How Rich Is Mr. Darcy?

Just how wealthy is Mr. Darcy?

He was earning £10,000 in, let’s say, 1811-1812, the time when Pride and Prejudice is set. The relative worth of yesterday’s money to today’s currency varies greatly depending on how you measure it, but if you use average earnings (that is, how much he made compared with average incomes of his time), a gent earning £10,000 in 1830, the farthest back the index goes, would be earning nearly £8 million (about $11 million U.S.) annually.

But there was a much wider gap between rich and poor and not much of a middle class back then, so retail price index (that is, the purchasing power of his income) is probably a better indicator. By that standard, Mr. Darcy would be earning about £534,000 pounds ($790,000 U.S.) annually (according to Measuring Worth). Well, probably less than that at the moment, with the world’s economy in dire straits.
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‘Lost in Austen’ DVD Finally Arrives

Lost in Austen's Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Eliot Cowan

Lost in Austen’s Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Elliot Cowan

A couple of weeks ago, “Lost in Austen” finally came out on DVD in the United States. Those of us who delight in this marvelously twisted take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice couldn’t be happier.

This sharply written four-part series, which originally aired on British TV, then on the Oxygen channel (and PBS) here, revolves around what happens when a modern woman, Amanda Price (excellently portrayed by Jemima Rooper), finds herself transported into fictional Georgian England, right into the heart of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. As Amanda tries to negotiate the intricacies of early 19th century dancing, dining and etiquette, Lizzy Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is living it up in 21st century London and shows no signs of wanting to come back.

Like many women, Amanda loves Pride and Prejudice for its timeless love story between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Then she meets the famous Fitzwilliam Darcy, who bitterly disappoints her by being a “relentlessly unpleasant,” overly arrogant aristocrat. Ah, but we knew that, didn’t we? Elliot Cowan excels as Darcy. He’s proud and overbearing, then contrite, and finally passionate. And he looks really, really good in a wet shirt. (Yes, “Lost in Austen” pays tribute to that famous jump-in-the-lake scene in the 1995 version of P&P, which cemented Colin Firth’s reputation as the Mr. Darcy for all time.)

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