Why Jane Austen Movies Are My Comfort Object

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I recently had a realization: Jane Austen movies (and, especially, TV miniseries) are my comfort object.

Yes, everyone who loves historical costume movies loves Jane Austen, right? But I’m with Trystan — Regency ISN’T an era that I particularly like, fashion-wise! It’s all nightgowns, and while it can be flattering on 16-year-olds who survive on carrot sticks, it’s not so great on substantial women-of-a-certain-age like myself.

What I wish I looked like in Regency clothing (Madame Recamier by Jacques Louis David).

What I wish I looked like in Regency clothing (Madame Recamier by Jacques Louis David).

What I actually look like in Regency clothing (Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. 1995).

What I actually look like in Regency clothing (Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, 1995).

So for someone who loves making and wearing historical costume, this is kind of a contradiction. Why do I love these shows so much? Why do I put them on every time I’m bored, or sick, or just want something on in the background while I sew or clean or…? Why do I love them even more (I’m sorry!!) than their original books? Well, let me navel-gaze:

 

Jane Austen Movies Are Oldey-Timey

The Regency era is an interesting one. It’s right in between the pomp and circumstance of the 18th century (my dream era), but with tinges of the naturalism to come in the 19th century. And, as a baseline, they’re at least historic. I’d much rather get lost binge-watching a show set in any historical era over something contemporary. I don’t have to explain this to you all, do I?

Episode 4

Picnics are at their best when an army of servants has hauled all your unnecessary crap for you.

 

Jane Austen’s Characters Are Relatable

I can better identify with Austen’s middle- and upper-middle-class characters versus the royals and aristocracy that are usually the lead in most other historical costume movies. I’m fascinated by historical people like Elizabeth I or Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but there isn’t much about their lives that is similar to my own, not having piles of money. I can, however, put myself more readily into Elizabeth Bennet’s or Elinor Dashwood’s relatively modest shoes.

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“Oh, a cottage! How charming. A little cottage is always very snug.”

 

Jane Austen Movies Are Female-Centric

This is a given for me. If a book doesn’t have a main character who is female, I don’t want to read it. Movies and TV are slightly easier for me to get into, but I admit, my life is very much rooted in my own, female-specific view of the world. This doesn’t mean I think women are fundamentally different from men, rather that I’m more interested in the female experience.

Who can't relate to the idea of a woman on the verge of being past her prime, who may have given up her one chance at happiness?

What woman can’t relate to the idea of being on the verge of past her prime, who may have given up her one chance at happiness?

 

Jane Austen Movies Are Complex

Nothing is better than a story that takes its time, and Austen is particularly good for stories that weave in and out. Minor characters are there to amuse and annoy you. Plot lines go in unexpected directions. I will admit to not having read any Austen until after watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Someone lent me the VHS tape, and I put it on “in the background” as I packed to move out of my current apartment. Cut to me spending six hours sitting on a hardwood floor (because the furniture had already been removed) because I was so entranced in the story, and had NO idea how the hell Elizabeth and Darcy could ever get together.

P-P-1995-Screencaps-Random-pride-and-prejudice-1995-6149935-1280-720

Darcy starts making an effort! My heart starts fluttering!

My favorite of these are the longest ones, as they take the time to follow all of the various twists and turns. Yes, I like the main will-they-won’t-they love stories, but I want to spend time sneering along with Caroline Bingley, rolling my eyes at Mrs. Elton’s “caro sposo,” laughing with glee as Fanny Dashwood talks her husband down from sharing his inheritance to occasional gifts of meat, and extolling the virtues of a man who understands muslin with Mrs. Allen.

There are SO MANY GOOD minor characters, including:

“I have the greatest dislike of the idea of being over-trimmed, quite a horror of finery.” (Mrs. Elton, Emma, 2009)

Sir Walter 1995

“Once and for all, will you accompany us to a tea party at the Dalrymples?” (Sir Walter, Persuasion, 1995)

"Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example and take a turn about the room. It's so refreshing." (Caroline Bingley, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

“Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example and take a turn about the room. It’s so refreshing.” (Caroline Bingley, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

"You don't know what I suffer." (Mrs Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

“You don’t know what I suffer.” (Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

"No lace. No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!" (Mr Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

“No lace. No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!” (Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

"Yes, yes but this is all extremely vexing... I'm quite put out!" (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

“Yes, yes, but this is all extremely vexing … I’m quite put out!” (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

"Well, perhaps we should call when we are next in town!" (Mrs Hurst, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

“Well, perhaps we should call when we are next in town!” (Mrs. Hurst, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Hugh Laurie, 1995, (c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“If only YOU would stop.” (Mr. Palmer, Sense and Sensibility, 1995)

"People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them." (Fanny Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, 1995)

“People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.” (Fanny Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, 1995)

 

Okay Yes, Jane Austen Movies Have Swoon-Worthy Heroes

Henry Tilney. HE UNDERSTANDS MUSLIN. (Northanger Abbey, 2007)

Henry Tilney. HE UNDERSTANDS MUSLIN. (Northanger Abbey, 2007)

Captain Wentworth. He's all noble and manly and wounded pride. (Persuasion 1995)

Captain Wentworth. He’s all noble and manly and wounded pride. (Persuasion, 1995)

Mr Darcy. He's that rich, arrogant prick who is softened by the right girl. (Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

Mr Darcy. He’s that rich, arrogant prick who is softened by the right girl. (Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

 

So, what’s your on-constant-rotation historical costume movies or TV series? Is it Jane Austen, or do you have another go-to category?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

22 Responses

  1. Stephani

    Mine too, Kendra, mine too! I also did not read any Austen until after I’d seen the BBC/A&E miniseries version on my college dorm-room TV, but after that I was hooked. She’s so subtle isn’t she? Her characters are so real: no one is 100% perfect, even the heroine–especially the heroine–and her hero.
    But I do love dressing-up Regency. I know I probably look like a sack of potatoes in my stays and high-waisted gowns, which is why I tend to avoid looking at photos of myself, but as long as I can maintain the illusion created in my head, I’m ok. I also stick with the earlier styles, not the true Romantic/Gothic overly embellished styles, and I think that helps, since they’re more flowing.
    Anyway. All Austen flicks are my comfort brain-food, especially the long miniseries versions.

    Reply
  2. Michael L. McQuown

    Ironically, in the last scene of Lizzie Borden, Lizzie in reading to her sister, Emma, from Pride and Prejudice. Even a psycho killer can find comfort in Jane Austen. Now, will someone please explain to me about the movie called “Jane Austen’s Mafia”?

    Reply
  3. Amy Osterholm

    Not to mention the fact that they are full of words written by Jane Austen! You can always tell when the script deviates from her lines, it becomes leaden and unwieldy, unlike her champagne-light prose.
    Also, no love for Mr Collins as a HILARIOUS secondary character?

    Reply
    • Carolyn

      I too was disappointed that Mr Collins got no mention, I think he may be my favourite, for all Mr Bennett challenges Sir Lucas to produce such a son-in-law as Wickham! lol

      Reply
    • EMS

      I feel like Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility did a good job of adding lines while still capturing the spirit of the original novel. Although in most cases, yes, the original is best.

      Reply
      • Helen Huntingdon

        I thought the Greer Garson P&P did a good job with adding lines too in some of the scenes. There was an early ball scene showing Elizabeth Bennet’s style of banter where she could get away with saying things that were downright rude by saying them in just the right way — I thought they captured that well. We are talking about the character who, in the original, could get away with calling Darcy and Bingley’s sisters cows.

        Reply
  4. red*razors

    I’m the exact same :) especially if I’m sewing. Out comes Netflix and you can bet I’m watching all 6 hours of P&P. Northanger Abbey usually gets a look-in, and then Austenland for more JJ Feild and “is that what I’m like..?”. They’re fun, witty, sharp as a tack – what’s not to like?

    Reply
  5. Carolyn

    I am on the same page with *everything* you have said. I guess apart from being blasé about the fashion, I do quite like it and enjoy dressing in it. Although I often dislike what’s in the movies/miniseries.

    I do have additional comfort eye food (does that work?): the Elizabeth Gaskell adaptations of North & South (Richard Armitage’s smouldering…..ungggggg), Cranford, and Wives and Daughters.

    And then also the most recent Little Dorrit with Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. I love just how LONG it is! I can do so much handsewing while watching it!

    Reply
  6. Sara Jane

    Totally agree! I watched the A&E P&P so many times I wore out my original VHS copies. I kinda want to make a regency dress, even with all the problems listed above – they look so comfortable. Does anyone know of a good regency petticoat pattern?

    Reply
  7. EMS

    I love that you obviously have the exact same taste in Austen movies as me, since you have pictures of all of my favorite adaptations (and none from the ones I hate…2005 P&P, I’m looking at you…).

    Reply
  8. Jenny Ketcham

    I agree with you, Kendra, and Carolyn, too…especially with widening the Austen genre to include other Victorian authors like Elizabeth Gaskell, if just to get Richard Armitage in there! Yowza!

    And red*razors, I got a real kick out of Austenland, too, and its fond mockery of the genre and the fans…imagine, a film as fun as that from Stephanie (Twilight) Meyer as a first time producer!

    Reply
  9. MoHub

    No pictures from my favorite P&P: The miniseries with Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie and David Rintoul as Darcy? the casting in that absolutely mirrored the images in my head when I first read the book.

    Reply
    • Sonya Heaney

      Same here. After seeing Garvie’s (truer to the book) Elizabeth Bennet I could no longer cope with all the smirks and dirty looks Ehle brought to the part.

      Sure, it’s super stagey, but the 1980 version is my go-to P&P.

      Reply
  10. dyanswan

    I regularly have Jane Austen film fests. The 1995 version of Persuasion is my favorite. For me, Ciarán Hinds was the perfect Frederick Wentworth. When I saw Persuasion in the movies, the audience sighed with Frederick and Anne kissed.

    Reply
  11. Bronwyn Cole

    Simply immersing myself into any historical period acts as my comfort object, however, Austen movies top my list! I would also have to add Downton Abbey.

    Reply
  12. leobalecelad

    Jane Austen is the greatest writer in English literature, as far as I’m concerned. I know many who hate her, but I think that’s because people get turned off her when they are forced to read her for school. I read Pride and Prejudice first when I was 15, after listening to some conversations from some people who were reading it for their HSC (final year New South Wales Australian exams). “It’s so boring! All they do is talk about officers and clothes!” And then they turned to discussing boyfriends… and clothes.

    As for adaptations, the 1995 Persuasion is brilliant.

    Reply
  13. SharonD

    God, i am reading this site and remarking on all these old threads, but I fell like the Bee Girl in the Blind Melon video, like I wandered into some field and found some people like me, haha!!

    I have have put on my DVDs of the BBC 1995 P&P, or Emma, S&S, Northanger Abbey or Persuasion more time than i can count when I am cleaning, painting, or sewing. I just like to listen to them talk. The language is elevated, as in higher English and certainly in no way the manner in which 21st century Americans speak, but it is relatable and understandable, and you don’t have to struggle to get into the story. Austen is a nice middle ground for people who want a good story told in that manner of speaking, but not so high that you have no fucking idea what is going on, like with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is fabulous and has its place, certainly, but it is cerebral and work for me to process in my brain. Austen goes right to the heart and soul and doesn’t feel like work at all.

    It is my comfort zone, too!

    Reply
  14. Janet

    I my goodness!!! I found my kind!!! 💘I do the very same thing when sitting behind my sewing machine or behind my ironing board with a huge pile of clean clothes.
    I also have several versions of ‘Jane Eyre’ on dvd….or it’s off to Shakespeare ❤

    Reply

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