‘The Flutter of Pleasure’: Jane Austen Adaptations & Sexual Desire

by: , September 12, 2018

© The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (YouTube series 2012-2013)

In late September 1995, the BBC aired an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that forever changed the face of Austen adaptations: no small part of this influence was its attempt to ‘sex up’ Austen’s most adapted novel. Indeed, as Sue Birtwhistle (1996) recalls, even in its preproduction phrase, the focus of the media was the attempt to make the adaptation more contemporary in terms of sex. Birtwhistle recalls how, after an interview with the press, Andrew Davies alluded to the relationship between sex and money presented in the novel and: ‘The tabloid newspapers needed no further encouragement. ‘SEX ROMP JANE AUSTEN’ hit the headlines’. (quoted in Cartmell 2010: 67) Of course, the resulting adaptation was far from the tabloid-promised ‘sex romp’. It did, however, go further than any previous Austen adaptation in its representation of Elizabeth and Darcy as characters who are both sexually attracted to each other. From the adaptation’s insistent gaze on Elizabeth Bennet’s (Jennifer Ehle’s) plunging necklines, to the now infamous sequence in which Mr Darcy strips down to his undershirt and dives into a lake, only to emerge in a drenched shirt to meet an unsuspecting Elizabeth, Andrew Davies’ adaptation can be seen to have begun this practice of ‘sexing up’ Austen for modern audiences. This ‘sexing up’ can include changes in narrative structure, dialogue, and in all aspects of representation, which together can present a mediated version of sexual aspects of the text. As Byrne argues, ‘Davies is well-known for his ‘sexing up’ of the repressed plots of nineteenth-century fiction: his adaptations of classic novels always foreground sexuality that is absent or only implicit in the source text’. (2015: 101) Moreover, ‘sexing up’ has become so commonplace in adaptations of classic novels, that as Whelehan argues, ‘in the past two decades [adaptation] has been all about sexing up the past, so that risqué content is almost routine and rarely shocking’. (Whelehan 2012: 277) This practice of ‘sexing up’ also has an ambiguous relationship with feminism and in some ways can be seen as postfeminist; by an insistence on the ‘sex’ in Austen’s novels, these adaptations can ignore the implicit social commentary on women’s lives within them.

The relationship media texts and their representation of sex have with feminism and postfeminism is often ambiguous. Here, I will explore this ambiguity through the notion of sex as problematic and/or pleasurable for women in three Austen adaptations rendered across different media: Joe Wright and Deborah Moggach’s 2005 feature film Pride and Prejudice; Andrew Davies and John Alexander’s 2008 BBC television adaptation Sense and Sensibility; and the web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, created by Hank Green and Bernie Su, which premiered on YouTube in 2012. I will argue that while adaptations from the period 1995-1999 are postfeminist in their anachronistic assumptions of certain freedoms for their heroines, later adaptations, such as those explored in this article, use the representation of sex to draw attention to gender inequality. This article will also recognise that the labelling of an adaptation as postfeminist is beset with challenges, indeed, the definitions and understandings of postfeminism can themselves differ. Angela McRobbie notes that postfeminism appears to refer to:

‘an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined. It proposes that through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism, while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism’. (McRobbie 2007: 60)

Similarly, Imelda Whelehan argues that, ‘post-feminist discourse is characterised as deploying what might be regarded as broadly feminist sentiments in order to justify certain behaviours or choices, but these sentiments have become severed from their political or philosophical origins’. (Whelehan 2010: 156) Other critics, however, such as Gill (2007), have recognised that postfeminism can represent new ways in which women are exploited in the context of neoliberal capitalism Postfeminism is caught, then, between attempts at advancing and contemporizing feminism/feminist ownership and compromising the political movement that drives it. This is clearly evident in adaptations of Austen’s novels, as they wrangle with a narrative arch and characters that are of their own period, in which sex is only ever implied, and a modern context in which the heteronormative sex seen in these adaptations is no longer taboo.

The view that the adaptations of the ‘Austenmania’ period of the 1990s are postfeminist, in their foregrounding of sexual aspects of the texts, has attracted much critical attention. Several critics see some Austen adaptations of the 1990s as postfeminist in that they assume the battles of feminism to have been won and progress to have been made, and thus the realities of woman’s lives in the period are forgotten. Lisa Hopkins, for example, in Mr Darcy’s Body: Privileging the Female Gaze, argues that adaptations of Austen — specifically Davies’ Pride and Prejudice (1995) — appeal quite directly to a postfeminist female audience by offering up Colin Firth’s Darcy to the female gaze as a sexual object ripe for consumption. (Hopkins 2001: 34) By making Darcy the object of the viewer’s gaze rather than Elizabeth Bennet, the adaptation suggests that Elizabeth is no longer seen as an object to be regarded, whilst also simultaneously suggesting a knowing irony by framing the male hero as the object of the gaze. Kristin Flieger Samuelian also views Austen adaptations as being post-feminist, in a more negative way, arguing of Sense and Sensibility (1996) that:

‘Thompson registers protest through the speeches of her female characters and then quiets it by means of a courtship plot that obviates the conditions protested against. This pattern…while seeming to legitimize feminist discourse, is more in line with post-feminism and effectively erases the implicit feminism of Austen’s novel’. (2001: 148)

The dialogue interpolated by Thompson, regarding women’s inability to work to make their fortune and the entailment of estates, amongst other things, attempts at drawing attention to the conditions of women’s domestic, financial and sexual lives in the late eighteenth century. However, Flieger Samuelian argues that Thompson’s treatment of the courtship plot undermines this attempt:

‘The explicit, if restrained, dissent of Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood, the largely unreproved rebelliousness of Margaret, the heightened attractiveness of Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, and the general redistribution of passion and passionate encounters in the transition from novel to film require Thompson to eliminate or explain away much of what is unsettling in Austen’s courtship plot.’ (2001: 155)

In this sense, Flieger Samuelian argues that Sense and Sensibility (1996), through an insistence on Elinor and Marianne as sexual beings, whose main concern is finding a husband, becomes a text that is less feminist than Austen’s novel. Indeed, there is less of a focus on the aspects of sisterhood that are present in the novel, such as the relationships between the women of the novel, and more on relationships between men and women. Furthermore, the curiously deflating manner in which Marianne is betrothed to Brandon in the novel, which suggests that the union is for safety and security in a social and historical context (in which being poor and unmarried was extremely undesirable) is replaced by a Hollywood-esque glorious wedding scene: the couple emerge from church, newly-wed, radiant and beaming, set to embark on a what the audience is to presume will be a fulfilling, and more importantly, legitimate, sexual union. Considering that the novel features two women whose lives have been ruined by pre-marital sex, shows Elinor teetering on the edge of a similar fate, and presents a selection of men who can and do harm women, relationships in the adaptation between men and women do not seem to be contested, but rather celebrated; in this adaptation there is less allusion to the idea that sexual attraction and illicit sexual activity can be dangerous for women.

Many Austen adaptations from the 1990s, including Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) can be viewed as postfeminist in similar ways to Sense and Sensibility (1996); they focus on relationships between men and women and sex and power in ways that obviate the restrictions and constraints on women in the period. Tasker and Negra argue: ‘Popular culture blithely assumes that gender equality is a given’ (Tasker and Negra 2007: 12) and this is certainly the case for Austen adaptation in their postfeminist approaches to the novels. More contemporary adaptations of Austen, however, from 2005 and beyond, while following and expanding on Davies’ lead in the ‘sexing up’ of Austen, represent women and their relationship with sex in ways that are both feminist and postfeminist. The source material for these adaptations – Jane Austen’s late eighteenth and early nineteenth century novels are known for their lack of physical contact, of any kind, between men and women. No embracing, no kissing and certainly no sex. They are a product of their time, and although they explore the gender inequalities of the society that they represent, they are chaste, romance narratives. (Tuite 2002: 52) It is difficult to imagine Austen, or any other writer of her period detailing sexual acts in their writing However, as adaptations are a visual medium, the implied sex of Austen’s novels must be made visually explicit in adaptations. Adaptations from the last twelve years, particularly, have responded to this need for the ‘sexing up’ of Austen by the representation of the sexual act as occupying a liminal space, where sex is represented as dangerous and problematic or pleasurable, and is established as present on both sides of the boundary and binary between peril and safety. Moreover, it is viewed in this way from a solely female perspective, female characters in the novels must navigate a path to marriage in a social world in which premarital sex was disastrous, while male characters can act on their desires with social impunity.

Pride and Prejudice 2005

Wright and Moggach in their 2005 feature film Pride and Prejudice make a conscious effort to address the realities of the Bennet sisters’ lives, and by extension the lives of women like them. As screenwriter Deborah Moggach stated in an interview with The Times: ‘this is the muddy-hem version’. (Moggach 2010) This term ‘muddy hem’ has come to be an academic shorthand term for this type of adaptation, and more specifically as a reaction against the heritage aesthetic of earlier adaptations, with its pristine costumes and interiors. For example, Pride and Prejudice (2005) sees a pig wandering through Longbourn and shows the Bennet sisters at various times with unwashed hair, sharing a bed and hastily tidying away the evidence of them trimming their own hats when Mr Bingley approachesThis type of adaptation represents a complete departure from the heritage adaptations of the 1990s, which represented a polished and idealised regency past, with a focus on pristine interiors and sumptuous costuming. This attempt to embed a more realistic and authentic approach to representing Austen’s novels, and their period can also be seen in the representation of attitudes to sex in the film: sex is neither wholly an act of pleasure or of potential danger – rather, the line between the two is ‘muddied’.

One way in which sexual attraction is foregrounded in Wright’s film is through the recurring trope of touch, particularly the touch of hands. When Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth leaves Netherfield, McFadyen’s Darcy helps her into the carriage necessitating that they touch hands. Wright’s presents a series of close-up shots: firstly the touching of hands, then of Elizabeth’s lingering look as he walks away, and finally, a close-up shot of Darcy’s hand, as he stretches his fingers and shakes his hand, almost as if to shake off the dangerous feeling of his sexual attraction to Elizabeth. This series of close up shots all suggest a sexually charged moment. This touching of hands is repeated at the novel’s climax, in Darcy’s successful proposal when Elizabeth takes his hand and kisses it. This reversal of gender roles suggests that for Elizabeth her relationship with Darcy will be one of equals, both intellectually (as the rest of the adaptation suggests) and sexually as the repeated motif of touching hands suggests. The touch is chaste, but it is pleasurable and there is no sense of dangerous desire in it. This is echoed by other moments in the adaptation that are sexually charged, such as the dancing scene at the Netherfield Ball and the looks Elizabeth and Darcy exchange while at Rosings Park. Of course, Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship is legitimate in terms of the societal mores of the period, they meet, fall in love and get married. However, there is a sense earlier in the adaptation that desire can be dangerous, in the representation of Darcy’s first, unsuccessful proposal. The scene begins with an extreme long shot of Elizabeth Bennet running over a bridge in the pouring rain, immediately after hearing the news that it was Darcy who counselled Bingley against his relationship with Jane Bennet. The accompanying music is dramatic, suggesting to the audience that a sexually charged moment is about to take place. The pathetic fallacy of the pouring rain continues into the proposal accompanied by the crash of thunder. Proxemically, McFadyen and Knightley move closer to each other throughout the proposal until they are so close that they are almost embracing, almost touching. This ‘almost touching’ and the accompanying mise-en-scène create a sense of compelling sexual attraction and, since the characters are alone and unchaperoned, of sexual danger.

In this sense, Wright’s film echoes the 1995 adaptation by reproducing, as Wiltshire suggests, ‘a reading of Mr Darcy which concentrates, as did that earlier version, on Darcy’s compelling sexual attraction to Elizabeth’. (Wiltshire 2009: 98) However, whilst the focus of Pride and Prejudice (1995) was Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy, as argued by Lisa Hopkins, in Pride and Prejudice (2005) there remains the sense that Keira Knightley is there to look at; that she is being offered up to the male gaze. The camera often goes to extreme close-ups of her face or, as at the Netherfield Ball, to the neckline of her dress. There is, however, a sense that Knightley’s Elizabeth has more power and control than those of earlier adaptations in multiple ways that are postfeminist. She encourages the gaze, but also controls it – as shown in her interactions with McFadyen’s Darcy and Tom Hollander’s Mr Collins. By the time of the release of Pride and Prejudice (2005), Knightley’s star persona was becoming established; she had already appeared as Elizabeth Swann in the first instalment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (Verbinski, 2003) and as Guinevere in King Arthur (Franzoni, 2004). Both these roles are women the audience were meant to perceive as independent beyond the societal norms of the period in which they are set: Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean holds her own in the company of the pirates and Guinevere in King Arthur is acknowledged as adept at using a bow and arrow. Both films require Knightley to be in period costume that often is physically revealing, which invites Knightley’s body to be viewed as a sexual object, just as at times Pride and Prejudice does. These previous roles played by Knightley echo and reverberate in her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. This representation of the character can be seen as postfeminist, but it is a postfeminism with an inherent duality; it assumes that the battles of feminism have been won by offering Knightley up to the gaze knowingly, but also acknowledges the ways in which the character of Elizabeth Bennet could be open to exploitation by Darcy due to the sexually charged nature of Darcy’s first proposalas detailed above.

While Elizabeth Bennet’s sexual desire is represented as thrilling, but ultimately safe, both in Austen’s novels and in adaptations of them, the desire of her sister Lydia is represented as dangerous and ruinous. While Austen often presents examples of fallen women, such as Mrs Clay in Persuasion and both Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, these are either past events as in Sense and Sensibility, or occur almost outside of the text, as in Persuasion. In Pride and Prejudice, however, she allows the reader to see first-hand the seduction and fall of Lydia Bennet and its effect on her sisters. Elizabeth complains: ‘Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character’. (Austen 1813: 176) This portrayal of Lydia is replicated in Wright’s production where Lydia, played by Jena Malone, is portrayed as a prodigious flirt. She is often shot in scenes where she is giggling at men with her sister Kitty. She explains to her sister Kitty that a good way to meet men is to ‘drop something. They pick it up. And then you are introduced’. This dialogue is followed immediately by Lydia dropping her handkerchief in front of a regiment of red coats, which flutters beneath the regiments’ feet and is ground into the dirt by their boots, foreshadowing Lydia’s potential future sexual experience with men as one that will be similarly sullied. But Lydia is unperturbed by this symbolic slight, and soon after gushes at George Wickham, ‘Oh Mr Wickham, how perfect you are!’. Wright employs the character arch of Lydia to comment on the injustices of the social and economic structure for women. After Lydia’s flight with Wickham, Wright constructs a scene which shows Elizabeth weeping as she is travelling home in a carriage through a storm, accompanied with dramatic music, and when she arrives home it is to a mother who has taken to her bed, and is exclaiming to the Bennet sisters: ‘You’re all ruined! Who will take you now with a fallen sister?’. Through these scenes Wright creates the sense that Lydia’s succumbing to her desire for Wickham is dangerous to her family as well as herself. Lydia’s engagement in the sexual act with Wickham has the potential to deny all her sisters the opportunity for legitimate sexual relationships in the form of marriage. However, once the news arrives that Lydia is married to Wickham – at great financial expense to others – she is immediately redeemed in the eyes of her mother, who rises from her bed and begins to dress so that she can ‘tell Lady Lucas’. Marriage has legitimised Lydia’s illicit sexual encounter and her gamble to experience the ‘flutter of pleasure’ has paid off. Wright’s representation of Lydia returning triumphantly to her family home suggests that Lydia is fully enjoying this flutter of pleasure, she is flushed, giggling and full of importance in her new role as wife and sexual partner, exclaiming to her sisters: ‘You must all go to Brighton, for that is the place to get husbands!’. However, this representation of Lydia as the picture of marital and sexual happiness is tempered by Wright – as Lydia leaves her family home in the carriage, waving at her family, Wickham manhandles her back to her seat and begins to berate her. The viewer sees this through a window of rough glass, creating a sense that we may or may not have seen Wickham’s mistreatment of Lydia. There is an ambiguity and opacity created by the mise-en-scène in this last image of Lydia. The line between sex as a flutter of pleasure or else as something problematic is muddied, both in the sense that it is obscured and also that for women to succumb to illicit sexual desire, as Lydia does, may have meant a lifetime of being perceived as tarnished. The tension between sexual desire and sexual danger is explored then in Wright’s adaptation in ways that are perhaps more feminist than in earlier adaptations of Austen, particularly those of the 1990s. In its acknowledgement that the Bennet sisters live a precarious financial existence there is a much greater sense that they cannot allow their sexual desire to cause them to transgress; Lydia does, and she appears to have pulled it off, but Wright’s final image of Wickham yanking her back to her seat reminds us that her transgression may not go unpunished, her sexual submission to Wickham has diminished her power in the game of sexual politics in which they are engaged.

Sense and Sensibility 2008

Another adaptation from the 2005 -2009 period which seems to explicitly engage with the tension between sexual desire and sexual danger is Andrew Davies and John Alexander’s 2008 BBC television series Sense and Sensibility. The novel is perhaps Austen’s most female-centric – the immediate Dashwood family is entirely female and stands alone in Austen’s oeuvre because of this. After the death of Mr Dashwood, Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters must act together to survive in a powerful patriarchal world in which men have all economic, legal and sexual power. They must negotiate practical aspects of this world, such as their finances and their house, but also its emotional aspects, such as desirable and undesirable suitors for Elinor and Marianne. They are ‘saved’ by a man, Sir John Middleton, who offers them a home, but they operate as a family unit that is determined by the lived experiences of women. The novel also foregrounds the perils of sexual attraction in ways that draw attention to the very real dangers women faced if they succumbed to their sexual desires: the text is haunted by two ‘fallen women’ – Eliza Brandon and her daughter Eliza Williams. Eliza Brandon dies in the poor house, leaving behind an illegitimate young daughter, the product of her taking lovers after her husband abandons her. This daughter is then later seduced by Willoughby and left to raise the child of this union on her own. Thus, while Austen does not detail the sexual misadventures of these women on the page, the reader is left in no doubt that sex outside of marriage is problematic and dangerous, indeed in Eliza Brandon’s case, it is fatal.

Davies and Alexander’s adaptation immediately utilises this backstory to foreground sex as something dangerous – for unmarried women at least – in the very opening scene. In the 2008 adaptation, the conversation and the action preceding it are used to highlight some of the obstacles faced by women in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The adaptation begins with a scene showing the seduction of Eliza Williams by Willoughby. Eliza is represented as passive in this encounter, she is undressed by Willoughby and her body is almost static, almost unresponsive, suggesting a sense that her consent is not being (enthusiastically) given. Eliza’s breath is ragged however, suggesting a flutter of pleasure. There are extreme close-up shots of skin in flickering candle light and interpolated dialogue of Eliza Brandon asking, ‘do you truly love me?’, to which Willoughby does not answer but instead instructs her: ‘trust me’. Eliza’s voice (Caroline Hayes) sounds very young and there is a sense that her consent, if present at all, is uncertain or even enforced. The combination of the diegetic sound of ragged breathing and non-diegetic dramatic music, with an ominous drum roll, combine to create a sense of sexual exploitation or violation. This moment suggests perhaps a point at which viewers should recognise the history of sexual exploitation, and thus draws attention to itself as a more feminist retelling of Eliza Brandon’s story than that of previous adaptations, which have not featured on-screen representation of Eliza’s backstory. Moreover, as Willoughby rides away on horseback, Eliza asks: ‘But when will you come back?’ to which he answers: ‘Soon, very soon’, a promise which is subsequently broken. A mid shot of Eliza, watching Willoughby retreat, frames her at a mullioned window, suggesting that she is imprisoned now by her decision to succumb to Willoughby’s seduction: her desire has imprisoned her. This scene thus suggests the ways in which women’s desires and behaviours could have a damaging effect on their reputations and happiness. This scene is immediately followed in the adaptation by the death of Mr Dashwood, whose daughters and wife sit by his deathbed. His son arrives just before he dies and promises him that he will provide for his stepmother and aunt, a promise on which he subsequently reneges. It thus links together two different types of male betrayal: Willoughby’s sexual betrayal of Eliza and John Dashwood’s financial betrayal of his sisters. This linking of ideas of betrayal, and the addition of new scenes and dialogue showing the seduction of Eliza Williams, suggests a conscious desire by Davies in this adaptation to engage with the implicit feminist criticism that is apparent in the novel.

At other points Davies’ adaptation also seems to engage with the idea of sex as problematic in ways that can be seen as feminist. In one scene Willoughby cuts a lock of Marianne’s hair. They are seated very closely together on the sofa, much more closely than decorum would have allowed for, with their faces almost touching. They are speaking in whispered voices, emphasising the clandestine nature of the event. He strokes Marianne’s hair and whispers to her, ‘Please let me…’, the meaning of which is at first deliberately ambiguous. The adaptation uses the episode in a Freudian way. He produces a pair of scissors and, when he cuts the lock of hair, parallels are drawn between this act and the sexual act – they make lingering eye contact and after the moment the scissors cut the lock of hair, Marianne gasps slightly. When Willoughby notices Marianne’s younger sister, Margaret watching, he whispers to her ‘Shhhh’ at which point Margaret giggles and turns away. Willoughby thus makes Margaret, another young female, an accomplice in his seduction of Marianne; she becomes unknowingly complicit in the seduction, acquiescing to Willoughby’s request that she ignore his inappropriate behaviour. There is a sense then that she is seeking to please Willoughby, after all, every other woman in her family is smitten with him to the extent that that they are almost blind to his illicit seduction of Marianne. Throughout the adaptation Willoughby is represented as a peddler of dangerous sexual desire and the adaptation thus engages with the feminist idea that is implicit in the novel that men’s desire can prove ruinous for women in the period, but that they themselves will escape unharmed from such encounters. He transgresses the societal norms of the period, and thus places Marianne in danger of sexual ruin. This is further emphasised by his and Marianne’s visit to his aunt’s house, Allenham. She is unchaperoned, and Willoughby’s aunt is not at home. As they ascend their staircase their hands are almost touching, adding an element of sexual excitement. Later, they kiss, and Willoughby seems to be on the verge of a proposal, thus legitimatising this forbidden kiss, but instead says ‘I think I should take you back now’. Meanwhile, Marianne’s family wait, increasingly worried for her physical, and implied sexual, safety. Indeed, in a metaphorical moment of dialogue, Mrs Dashwood says ‘I’m sure they’ve fallen into some misfortune’. However, when she is later challenged on her behaviour by her sister, she retorts ‘If I was doing wrong I should have felt it at the time’. Here then, Marianne is displaying a feminist attitude to her control over her sexual identity and behaviour, one that would have been unacceptable in the period, since it may have led to Marianne’s being a ‘fallen woman’. It is at points such as these in this adaptation that tensions arise between feminist and postfeminist discourses and behaviours; the adaptation is caught between conflicting desires, wanting to both present its female characters as rational beings, able to articulate their desires, in a way that is postfeminist, but also eager to present the realities of sexual desire for women in the period in ways that are feminist.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries 2012

Period adaptations obviously can foreground the idea of the ‘fallen woman’ and their audiences will be aware of what this would have meant and its potentially dire consequences. However, the idea of the fallen woman, one that is at the mercy of her sexual desires, such as that at play in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, is clearly an idea that is no longer as relevant to contemporary audiences in terms of their lived experiences. Thus, any updating of Austen can present new challenges. The 2012 web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, approaches the problem of Lydia’s seduction by Wickham in a way that acknowledges the challenges of negotiating sexual relationships in the 21st century. Here, Lydia, played by Mary Kate Wiles, is presented as a sexually active young woman in ways that are uniquely postfeminist and feminist. Lydia’s first appearances in the Lizzie Bennet vlogs represent her as carefree and joyful, and in control of her own sense of sexual identity, though this is not without the reprobation of her sister Lizzie who is thankful that Lydia is now ‘too old to be on any reality TV series about having babies in high school’. (Kiley 2012) As the series developed, however, her story became one of the most poignant elements of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Lydia’s early appearances in her sister’s vlogs presented her as bubbly and vivacious with her 21st century trademark slogan of ‘totes adorbs’. Indeed, such was her popularity with audiences that the producers decided on a series of parallel Lydia vlogs, in which she is the star. However, as the series progressed, and Lydia became involved in a romantic relationship with swimming coach George Wickham, the producers began to present a very different, quieter Lydia, who looked paler and drawn and noticeably unhappy in her relationship with Wickham. Indeed, one vlog demonstrated Wickham’s abusive potential, as Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice did, by showing Wickham angry that Lydia was reticent to tell her sisters about their relationship for fear of their concern for her and their potential disapproval of Wickham.

However, the illicit sexual activity of Lydia and Wickham in the novel obviously produced unique challenges for the writers of the series: sex outside of marriage is not taboo for contemporary audiences. Instead, the plot of the web series revolves around Wickham threatening to show a sex tape of Lydia on the internet, with a website already running and the onsite clock ticking. The concept of sex tapes being released in to the public domain without the consent of those involved is clearly a contemporary concern and trope – such tapes and other types of revenge porn have been a persistent item in the media for some time now. Indeed, they are predominately crimes perpetrated against women and the response to them has been a predominately feminist one; women must be allowed control of their own sexual identity, sexual activity and sexual privacy. The non-consensual release of such revenge porn is a violation of these rights. What makes the inclusion of the sex tape trope in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries of interest is the way in which it highlights ways in which some men still victimize women, despite the progress made in gender equality: Lydia can still be exploited by Wickham as he has the power to humiliate her with the tape. This draws audience attention to the development in the real world of the ways in which women can still be abused by men through revenge porn. Indeed, three years after the premiere of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, in April 2015, new legislation was introduced in the UK and the USA to which made it illegal to disclose a ‘private sexual photograph or film’ without the consent of the person depicted in the content, and with the intent to cause them distress. The act is punishable by up to two years in prison. From this, parallels can be drawn with sex as dangerous in Austen’s time and in our own. In the Regency period, sexual desire outside of marriage could expose women to the contempt of their society; women could have no ownership of their sexual identity, rather it was controlled by men. In contemporary society, as in the setting of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, private sexual activity that is made public without consent for the purpose of degradation of women was such a problem that legislation was needed. In both cases, the consent, privacy and ownership of sexual activity for women are portrayed as problematic. However, the very fact that in the 21st-century men can be punished by law for the distribution of revenge porn shows how far gender equality has progressed from Austen’s time in which women, but not men, were punished by society for illicit sexual activity.

Other characters’ reaction to Lydia’s sex tape, particularly Lizzie’s reaction to it, also raise questions about the notion of sex as a private act, one that becomes perilous if it becomes public. Lizzie immediately assumes that Lydia is complicit in the imminent release of the tape, that if Lydia has already shared so much of her life online then she will also share the sex tape, an idea that she finds abhorrent. It is only when she discovers that Lydia had no knowledge of the website and tape that they repair their relationship, and Lizzie looks for ways to prevent the release of the tape. In many ways this response shows the ways in which this adaptation of the novel finds itself in a double bind of being both feminist and postfeminist. Lydia is a young woman in control of her own sexuality, but there is the suggestion that this freedom has an end point which does not stretch so far that she should be allowed to release a sex tape of herself, should she so wish. She must retain an innocence of the release of the tape to be redeemed, both within her own family and to the audience. However, the series also treats the Lydia story in ways which are feminist. The series can be considered a faithful adaptation: the characters and plot remain largely the same as the novel. However, in one key way the web series deviates, and that is in its treatment of the Lydia and Wickham plot line after the sex tape scandal. The novel’s Lydia has no choice but to marry Wickham; she has partaken in premarital sex and the only way to legitimize this is though marriage to him, no matter how poor a marriage partner he may turn out to be. This is not the case for 2012’s Lydia. The decision to not redeem Wickham and have him continue his relationship with Lydia shows an acknowledgement that Lydia must be freed from this relationship if it is to appeal to a contemporary audience, one that is familiar with the notion of feminism. It also acknowledges the plight of the novel’s Lydia by making such plot changes – drawing attention to the fact that while she had no other option but marriage, the Lydia of 2012 does, and is free to move on from the toxicity of her encounter with her seducer. As such it acknowledges to what extent the goals of feminism have been met, and how much progress has been made, whilst simultaneously suggesting there is still some way to go through its insistence that Lydia must retain innocence of the sex tape.

Tensions between postfeminism and feminism appear to complicate and problematize the adaptation of Austen’s novels. On the one hand, adaptations have a desire to present the heroines in ways which do justice to the proto-feminism of Austen’s novels, on the other, they wish to produce engaging romance narratives, culminating in the wish fulfilment of the heroine. This reflects the tensions at play in Austen’s novels themselves, in which the implied criticism of the constraints of patriarchy manifests itself as hastily rushed off conclusions, through which the reader is to assume that that the couple live happily ever after but are given no real evidence of this being the case. The ways in which sexual identity and freedom is represented in these adaptations also says much about the adaptations’ own contexts of production and their relationship with feminism and postfeminism. Adaptations from the 1990s, which are predominantly of the heritage genre, have a glossiness about their production which allows little room for the ‘muddying’ of the lines between allowed and illicit sexual activity. The period of adaptation of 2005–2012 however, draws attention to feminist issues such as the lack of sexual freedom women could experience in Austen’s period, and the dire consequences of threatening cultural mores with unchecked sexual desire; experiencing the flutter of sexual pleasure outside of marriage was dangerous and ruinous, an idea that Davies’ Sense and Sensibility highlights clearly with its foregrounding of Eliza Brandon’s seduction. This can in some ways perhaps be accounted for by the rise in popular feminism in this period, such as the website ‘the F Word’, founded in 2001, and the television series Girls (2012). This rise is also echoed in more recent contemporary movements such as #metoo and #TimesUp, which illustrate an embedding of feminism in the everyday lived experiences of women. Austen adaptations can be seen to envision this growth. They are however, as this article has endeavoured to show, often caught in a double bind. Period adaptations of Austen that wish to engage with the implicit feminist comment in Austen’s source text must both take pains to show the harsh economic, domestic and sexual realities of women’s lives in the period whilst also providing enough ‘sexing up’ of the source material to engage and retain viewer interest. Contemporary adaptations, such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries can more easily adapt the source material, as the very much changed realities of women’s lives allow for this. Indeed, the ‘sex tape’ trope allows the adaptation to explore new ways in which women can be exploited be men, despite the progress made in terms of sexual freedom over the decades. However, as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries treatment of Lydia’s sex tape shows, the tension is still at play here between feminism and postfeminism. The reaction to the possibility of Lydia’s knowing complicity in the sex tape, and the implied suggestion that Lydia’s sexual freedom is acceptable – but only up to a certain point- negates some of the otherwise feminist responses to the source text. This allows for the possibility that some forms of sexual liberation can be seen as postfeminist to the extent that they are a threat to appropriate feminist behaviours. These tensions in Austen adaptations, no matter the period in which they are set, illustrate how representations of sexual desire, or what Austen termed the ‘flutter of pleasure’, draw attention to women’s control, or lack of control, over their own sexual identity.


Austen, Jane (1813) Pride and Prejudice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burns, Amy (2013), ‘The Chick’s ‘New Hero: (Re) Constructing Masculinity in the Post-feminist Chick Flick’ in Joel Gwynn & Nadine Muller (eds.), Post Feminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 131-148.

Byrne, Katherine (2015) Edwardians on Screen, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cartmell, Deborah (2010) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Relationship Between Text and Film, London: Methuen.

Hopkins, Lisa (2001), ‘Mr Darcy’s Body: Privileging the Female Gaze’, in Linda Troost & Sayre Greenfield (eds.), Jane Austen in Hollywood, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 111-121.

Flieger Samuelian, Kristen (2001), ‘Piracy Is Our Only Option: Post-feminist Intervention in Sense and Sensibility’ in Linda Troost & Sayre Greenfield (eds.), Jane Austen in Hollywood, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 148 -158.

McRobbie, Angela (2007), ‘Post-feminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the new gender regime’, in James Curran & David Morley (eds.), Media and Cultural Theory, London: Routledge, pp 60 -69.

Moggach, Deborah quoted in Joanna Briscoe, ‘A Costume Drama with Muddy Hems,’ Times Online, 24th August 2005, www.thetimes.co.uk

Mulvey, Laura (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, Vol. 16, Issue 3, pp 6–18

Pucci, Suzanne & Thomas, James (2003) Jane Austen and Co, Albany: State University of NY Press.

Tasker, Yvonne & Negra, Diane (2007) Interrogating Postfeminism, Durham: Duke University Press.

Tuite, Clare (2002) Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wiltshire, John (2009), ‘Mr Darcy’s Smile’, in David Monaghan, Ariane Hudelet &John Wiltshire (eds.), The Cinematic Jane Austen: Essays on the Filmic Sensibility of the Novels, Jefferson: McFarland and Company, pp 94-110.

Whelehan, Imelda (2010), ‘Remaking Feminism: Or Why Is Post-feminism So Boring?’, Nordic Journal of English Studies,Vol. 9, No. 3, pp 155-172.

Whelehan, Imelda (2012), ‘Neo-Victorian Adaptations’ in Deborah Cartmell (ed.), A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation, London: John Whiley and Sons, pp 272-291.

Film and Web Series

Pride and Prejudice, DVD, screenplay by Deborah Moggach, directed by Joe Wright, UK: Working Title, 2005.

Sense and Sensibility, DVD, screenplay by Andrew Davies, directed by John Alexander. London: BBC, 2008.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, web series, directed by Bernie Su & Margaret Dunlap. USA: Pemberley Digital, 2012.

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