BBC

In October 1995, a scene from a BBC costume drama sparked something of a fever among an audience not typically accustomed to seeing the sexier side of classic literature. The show was a six-part adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice written by Andrew Davies, and the scene was entirely Davies’s creation, inserted into the fourth episode to ramp up sexual tension between the two characters. It goes like this: Fitzwilliam Darcy (Colin Firth), a wealthy landowner in Derbyshire, returns home to his estate, Pemberley, after a long journey, and decides to take a swim to cool off in the unseasonably warm English sunshine. He removes his cravat, then his waistcoat—all while, unbeknownst to him, Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) is touring Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, pausing in the portrait gallery to gaze up his likeness. Wearing only his undershirt and breeches, Darcy dives gracefully into the lake, emerges, and heads toward the house, walking through a field of wildflowers right into the path of an unsuspecting Lizzy.

The nation, for want of a better word, swooned. The Guardian has since declared the lake scene to be “one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history.” In 1996, shortly before Pride and Prejudice aired in the U.S., The New York Times described Elizabeth in the scene as “well on the way to dropping her prejudice after getting a good eyeful.” The series was an unprecedented hit in the U.K., with 40 percent of British televisions tuning in to watch the final episode, but its incalculable influence turned out to be about much more than ratings. In the 20 years since the adaptation aired, a genre Austen could never have predicted has risen in its wake: Pride and Prejudice-themed erotica.

Rated titles on Goodreads at present include Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, Pride and Penetration, Mr. Darcy’s Undoing, Felicity in Marriage (Erotic Pride and Prejudice Continuation, #1), and the succinctly titled Spank Me, Mr. Darcy. There’s also Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition (one in a series that adapts several other Austen titles). Beyond published works, a wealth of fan-fiction sites feature explicit, Austen-inspired stories (on the popular site fanfiction.net, Austen is the lone representative of the classics, inspiring more than 443 stories in six languages, not all sexually explicit). In her book, The Digital Afterlives of Jane Austen, Kylie Mirmohamadi points out “the prominence of the sub-genre of erotic Austen fan fiction, especially that fulfilling the narrative desire (in the words of the fan-fiction writer Linda Berdoll) ‘to know what Lizzy and Darcy did in bed.’”

The 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, while not solely responsible for the enduring erotic fascination with Austen’s characters, nevertheless reignited popular interest in the author. “Many fanfic authors date their interest in writing Austen-inspired stories to the 1996 broadcast in the United States of a BBC adaptation ... starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle,” wrote The New York Times in a 2000 story on the resurgence of interest in Austen’s work. But the adaptation also took significant creative license in drawing out the main themes of the book, described by the producer Sue Birtwistle as “sex and money.” In an interview with the BBC, Davies described his motivations in wanting to make the story more accessible to a modern audience:

We wanted lots of energy in the show, and the book justifies it, because Elizabeth is always running about and going on long country walks and getting all flushed and sweaty and getting the bottom of her petticoat muddy, which seems to be quite a turn-on for Darcy. So we thought, let’s make it as physical as we can without being ridiculous about it. Let’s remind the audience that this isn’t just a social comedy—it’s about desire and young people and their hormones—and let’s try to find ways of showing that as much as possible. So for the girls I wrote a lot of scenes where they’re backstage, so to speak: They’re getting dressed, they’re in their nighties, talking about love. And we wanted the guys to be doing lots of physical things: riding horses, fencing, having baths, jumping in the lake. Any legitimate excuse to get some of that kit off.

Davies’s interpretation of the story was revolutionary amid the somewhat stuffy world of costume drama. In addition to showing the characters in active poses, he allowed for a number of lingering looks between his star actors, including a lengthy exchange of smoldering eye contact between Elizabeth and Darcy while Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, is playing the fortepiano. There was no doubt left in the audience’s mind that the two characters desired each other; in the final episode, when they finally kissed in a carriage after leaving their wedding ceremony, the prolonged delay as they moved closer together felt arguably more erotically charged than all the stories at steamydarcy.com.

“People have probably always noticed the erotic subtext of Austen’s works,” says Sarah Raff, a professor of literature at Pomona College and the author of Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice. But the 1995 BBC adaptation, she argues, introduced audiences to a new version of Austen that was “directly relevant to their own erotic lives.” Raff also points out that Pride and Prejudice in many ways set the standard format for the dime-store romance novel: “A feisty woman despises, resists, and eventually subdues a rich, peremptory, passionate man ... only to discover that she loves him.”

Certainly Austen has nothing to fear from the writing in many of the explicit continuations of her stories. “It was now impossible for [Elizabeth] to think of anything but Mr. Darcy’s tights, and what they contained,” writes Linda Berdoll in Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife.  More inventive is a scene from Arielle Eckstut’s Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, which memorably assuages readers’ fears for poor Charlotte Lucas (married off to the sniveling Mr. Collins) by imagining Charlotte finding ways to assert her dominance in the relationship:

Mr. Collins went to stand, but Charlotte would have none of it. Mr. Collins was to fetch on all fours and to retrieve with his mouth, providing a momentary respite to his verbal excesses. Mr. Collins looked to be in near violent ecstasy as he trotted to the ottoman, let out a bark, and grabbed the crop with his teeth. Charlotte, herself, felt a keen rush of pleasure quite unlike anything she had known before.

Such liberal reimaginings of Austen’s book almost make Davies’s reported script notes for Firth—“imagine that Darcy has an erection”—seem gentle by comparison. But they do, if nothing else, prove that Austen’s characters have an almost unparalleled ability to live on in readers’ imaginations. And Raff believes that she would have appreciated the efforts of others to continue her stories, being an avid adapter of her own favorite authors. “Unlike many of her contemporaries, Austen acknowledged and celebrated collisions between the erotic energies of the novel and those of its readers,” Raff says. “Austen wanted her readers to love her, and her treatment today shows that they do.”

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