If we were having coffee, I’d gush about my discovery of the #weekendcoffeeshare blog prompt that is obviously going to give both my blog and my writing in general a much-needed caffeinated and creative boost, effectively launching me to internet celebrity status (not really, but a girl can dream). I stumbled across this ingenious idea via Part-Time Monster, where I was led vicariously via Gin and Lemonade, because I am a curious Alice, and the internet is my rabbit hole. Also, go read her. Just do it.
I teach writing; therefore it must follow that I write—or at least, profess to write. I expend exorbitant amounts of energy endeavoring to keep that myth alive. I also experience an adrenalin rush when I discover a new writing prompt to try that I imagine must be similar to a master chef’s excitement over a new recipe. This analogy, I realize, incorrectly implies that I am likewise a master of my craft. I no longer labor under that misapprehension.
If we were having coffee, I’d rhapsodize about saturating my life with all things Jane Austen this week, in honor of the 200th anniversary of her death. You’d probably point out that saturating my life with all things Jane Austen is just business as usual around here, but you totally wouldn’t say it in a judgy way, because if you were that sort of person, we wouldn’t be having coffee.
We wouldn’t discuss politics, because I make a habit of not flavoring my coffee with bitterness and the tears shed over the fall of the human race. We will instead discuss the fact that we now live in a world where someday, the list of professions open to my future daughter can also include timelord. It’s a beautiful time to be alive.
Anyone who follows my writing regularly knows that I am a self-professed fan of all things Jane Austen. Recently, I had the honor of being published at the Dear Jane Project, a blog whose mission is to unite Janeites across the world and pay tribute to her brilliance through fan-written letters.
to learn more about the Dear Jane Project, visit the homepage; you can read my letter here. Please do also take the time to check out some of the other letters written to Jane and consider following the project.
He’s left audiences spellbound with his Academy Award-winning portrayal of King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” He’s displayed a surprisingly impressive set of stunt skills in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: the Secret Service.” He carved a permanent place for himself in the hearts of women the world over with his tenderly authentic portrayal of Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” But there’s a bit more to Colin Firth than a dive into a lake and the fact that thanks to him no one else can ever win an ugly sweater contest ever again. Ever.
In honor of his birthday today, here’s a look at 5 times the world fell in love with Colin Firth.
1. His 2011 Golden Globes acceptance speech
When he scooped up his Best Actor award at the Golden Globes in 2011 for “The King’s Speech,” the first of many accolades, it was easy to forget for 50 seconds that Firth was drawing on the talent for which he was being awarded. Nonetheless, post-gameshow press recaps praised him for essentially showing showbiz how it’s done.
Go home, Hollywood. Colin’s got this one covered.
2. His moment of gallantry at the 2012 BAFTA Awards
Colin Firth doesn’t break the Internet very often, but we all remember flailing when Meryl Streep, in an adorable if inadvertent Cinderella impression, lost a shoe while mounting the stage to accept an award, and Firth, in true Prince Charming mode, retrieved it for her while his wife Livia looked on with an expression that clearly said, “Sorry, ladies. This one’s mine.”
On a side note, reenacting this scene in the rain while running to teach a class doesn’t conjure Colin from the shadows to save you, as I discovered, to my acute embarrassment. But that’s another story.
3. His jab at Ricky Gervais at the 2012 Golden Globes
Colin Firth is the king of deadpan, and that is all. When Ricky Gervais, albeit jokingly, called him a racist kitten-puncher at the 2012 Golden Globes, this was Firth’s response.
Colin Firth 1, Ricky Gervais 0.
4. His moment of appreciation for Jane Austen
In a 2006 interview, when asked to name the women in his life, Firth replied, “my wife, my mother, and Jane Austen.” While some of us have since speculated that this was largely a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that his role in the BBC’s wildly popular adaptation of Pride and Prejudice forever entrenched him in Darcy mania, I have to confess that despite my healthy skepticism, I allowed a tiny piece of my heart to drop into his hand at that moment. You’ve said it, Mr. Firth, and you can’t take it back.
5. His flawless improvisation as Mark Darcy
We’ve all seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” We all remember that fateful snowy kiss that was likely the primary catalyst for my decision to drag my last boyfriend with me to a wedding in Wisconsin in the dead of winter in the hope that he might be similarly inspired. (He wasn’t. Because you were wondering. And he’s not my boyfriend any more, for entirely unrelated reasons. Let’s be clear on that). But many people don’t know that Firth ad-libbed Mark Darcys forever classic line at the conclusion of that snowy kiss scene.
Several days ago, a conversation emerged on my Twitter feed about romance novels—specifically, what had been the “first” romance novel people had read. It might surprise readers who know me well, but this question gave me pause. I can list any number of romance novels I’ve enjoyed over the years, but as a child and teen, I gravitated more toward mystery and fantasy—some of which had strands of romance woven through them but that I couldn’t squarely locate within that genre.
Then I remembered that lonely Saturday afternoon when I was 13, just after the Valentine’s Day dance at school, when I lost myself in the comfort of a fictional universe to drown my sorrows over the fact that not a single boy had asked me to dance. Quite by chance, the novel I plucked off my shelf featured a heroine in the same plight as myself: a girl who, for want of a partner, had been forced to sit down because the gentleman who’d been suggested to partner her was “in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Yes, I’m talking about Pride and Prejudice. What a comfort that, as if bestowing a smile on me from the netherworld, Austen introduced Elizabeth Bennet to me when I needed her most.
Why I didn’t immediately pluck this title from my brain when asked what the first romance novel I’d ever read had been likely stems from a (admittedly pretentious) tendency to only categorize Pride and Prejudice as literary fiction by default, as if the “romance” genre cannot bestow enough literary distinction on Miss Austen. As someone who encourages and even participates in conversations about the blurred boundaries between literary and genre fiction, I’m almost ashamed to admit my mistake. Joshua Rothman, in an article published in the New Yorker, poses the question, “What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it about “the literary” that resists genre?” Appropriately, perhaps, he cites Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of the earliest examples of the collision between literary and genre fiction.
Pride and Prejudice, in as much as it’s been categorized as literary fiction, also fits fairly snuggly within the romance genre because the major conflict, after all, arises from a “matter of the heart.” The choices that the characters make, both wise and poor, have a ripple effect on more than one romantic relationship in the novel; Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s courtship with Jane, for instance, not only causes them both heartache, but loses him points in his pursuit of Elizabeth. Ultimately the novel follows that formulaic construction in which we know who will wind up marrying whom, but we read because we want to find out how they reach that conclusion.
To return to the conversation about romance novels with which I opened, thinking about Pride and Prejudice in relation to the romance genre also challenged me to reflect on the extent to which Pride and Prejudice has shaped my overall reading tastes. For one thing, I learned at a young age that I could, and should, expect strong-minded heroines in fiction. Even if Lizzie Bennet’s narrative follows the traditional trajectory for that period (ending in marriage) she’s still a relatively forward-thinking female for her time primarily because she holds strong opinions and has no qualms about voicing them. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is the moment when she stands up to Lady Catherine and refuses to promise never to enter into an engagement with Darcy. It matters not in that moment whether or not Darcy does propose to her a second time. It only matters that she make it clear that she, and she alone, will decide what will make her happy.
I credit Austen with guiding me toward romance fiction in which the couples are not only sexually/romantically attracted to one another, but worthy sparring partners on the intellectual playing field, which deepens their romantic attachment. I learned at a young age that both in my reading tastes and my own romantic choices, I could and should demand a man who values my brains as much as if not more than my beauty—a man who doesn’t feel intimidated by a self-sufficient, intelligent woman.
Having given Jane Austen tremendous credit for the extent to which my feminist principles inform my relationship choices, I’ve strongly considered implementing a sort of relationship version of the Litmus test, effective immediately, in which I ask each of my dates to name his favorite woman writer. I imagine the conversation proceeding something like this:
Me: so, who’s your favorite woman writer?
Date: I’m…not sure. Name a few.
Me: Contemporary or classic? British or American? Fiction or nonfiction?
Date (looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights): I…have to go to the bathroom. *he abruptly leaves the table and climbs out the window*
This seemed like a perfectly sane screening practice for a college English teacher; then I remembered that I haven’t had a date in two years, so I might be better off casting a slightly broader net, at least for the time being.
What was the first romance novel you remember reading?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Austen heroine must be in want of a husband, and you are no exception. Christened Elizabeth Bennet, you are tolerably beautiful and moderately accomplished, with a sharp wit and quick mind. You are the daughter of misguided but well-meaning parents and live with them and your four sisters–Jane, Mary, Kitty and Lydia–in the village of Longbourn, near the town of Meryton. You are of a happy disposition and have hitherto whiled away your years reading, walking and enjoying what limited society Meryton has to offer. A recent event, however, threatens to disturb your tranquility: a man of large fortune has let a nearby manor house. Inconsequential though this change of circumstance appears, it is the first in a long chain of events that will require you to face difficult decisions and impolite dance partners. Equipped with only your wit and natural good sense, your mission is to marry both prudently and for love, eluding undesirable suitors and avoiding family scandals which would almost certainly ruin any hope of a financially advantageous marriage for you or any of your sisters.
So opens Emma Campbell-Webster’s interactive, text-adventure novel: Lost in Austen: Choose Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. It should come as little surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of my acquaintance for more than five seconds that I spent my most recent holiday break with my head (and my heart) buried in this book—the Austenite’s version of a map of Middle Earth, and like a journey into Middle Earth, should you choose to accept Campbell-Webster’s mission, you will embark upon a series of trials, tribulations, and tests of endurance that, if you succeed, might end here.
(Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be mistress of such as this?)
The story opens predictably enough for readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice—with the announcement of Mr. Bingley’s arrival in Hertfordshire and the resulting marital mischief-making that ensues. Yet when Jane falls ill after riding to Netherfield in the rain and you rush to her side, the path before you holds more than the threat of sullying your petticoats six inches deep in mud; even if you choose the traditional plot, beware: the path to Pemberley requires brains, bravery, and a bookshelf full of Austen novels to survive. Along your journey, you’ll meet a host of characters, from wayward Wickham to noble Knightley. Do you elope with Willoughby or settle for the sensible Colonel Brandon? Choices, choices; what’s an Austen addict to do?
Campbell-Webster appropriately refers to these textual detours into all of Austen’s published works, as well as accounts of her own life, as “diversions”—a fitting term not simply because they offer literal diversions from the storyline of Pride and Prejudice, but because Austen frequently uses the term to denote an entertaining distraction. See, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet’s observations of her cousin’s and Sir William Lucas’s behavior during their visit to Kent in Chapter 28 of Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Collins and Charlotte were both standing at the gate in conversation with the ladies; and Sir William, to Elizabeth’s high diversion, was stationed in the doorway, in earnest contemplation of the greatness before him, and constantly bowing whenever Miss De Bourgh looked that way.” The book’s structure seems to speak to the respective popularity of each Austen hero (or scoundrel); a quick detour will lead you into Colonel Brandon’s Path—the proverbial low-hanging fruit, as it were. On the other hand, you have to journey somewhat further to cross paths with Knightley or captain Wentworth. Darcy, predictably, is the furthest from your reach, and before you can even hope to become mistress of Pemberley, you must endure all manner of tribulations from dirty stockings to soiled reputations, and by that time, who’s to say that he will even have you—a woman who has already refused him once?
In addition to your usual selection of suitors from amongst Austen’s heroes, you have the option to engage in some revisionist roleplaying with several of the more minor characters; however, some things in Austen are sacred. Campbell-Webster takes the “sisters before misters” mantra to heart, for instance, and Bingley cannot fall in love with you, nor you with him. (Well, you can, but alas, if you do, that love story is destined to remain untold. Thank God for fan-fiction). In case you thought Campbell-Webster cast aside her feminist principles in favor of marital bliss, there is also the singleton narrative option, but whether you will be rewarded or ridiculed for taking it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage remains for you to discover.
I confess, devoted Darcyian though I am, I would have liked to see some f/f action, perhaps in the manner of this scene from “Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason” (with a happier ending for Rebecca):
Indeed, the closest we come to any female interaction is an arbitrary encounter with a young girl in the attic of Northanger Abbey whom I can best describe as Fanny Price meets Emily Dickinson meets Bertha Mason. Whether Campbell-Webster meant this as a comical reference to Gilbert and Gubar, I don’t know, but it would seem a fitting nod to the Madwoman in the Attic one of the foundational texts about the nineteenth-Century female literary tradition.
Overall, the book is well-written and accurately-researched, rich with references both to Austen’s published work and the Juvenilia, as well as to her personal life lifted from letters to her sister Cassandra and Claire Tomalin’s biography: Jane Austen, a Life. In short, whether you have never satisfactorily settled the Team Knightley/Team Darcy debate in your mind, or if you’ve ever wondered what might happen if Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam faught over you (not that I’ve ever indulged in such foolery myself), Lost in Austen is a Janeite’s fantasy come true.