Jane Austen: A serial flirt with a hangover

LONDON Fri Apr 25, 2008 6:16pm EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Jane Austen fans who think the novelist was a country mouse may be shocked by a new British TV drama that depicts her flirting, suffering from hangovers and reneging on the acceptance of a marriage proposal.

But the screenwriter behind "Miss Austen Regrets" believes anybody who has read her books will recognize Austen as a woman of brilliant wit who knew her way around society.

"I am not dishing the dirt," Gwyneth Hughes said. "Some people might not like to see Austen with a hangover, but I am not out to shock."

Helen Lefroy, a distant relative of Tom Lefroy, a friend of Austen's, said the novelist may have been a live wire "but she wasn't wild."

"We know so little of her, but I do not think she was looking for marriage. She was looking to understand the relationship between men and women, which she used in her novels so well," Lefroy said.

The script for the BBC production, to air on Sunday, is based on the 100-plus surviving letters by Austen to her devoted sister, Cassandra, and to her young niece, Fanny.

Austen, who wrote the classics "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility," never found her own Mr. Darcy.

But the drama features a number of romances as well as a proposal of marriage, which the 27-year-old Austen initially accepted and then turned down after a night's reflection.

"It would have been seen as incredibly rude and ill-brought up," Hughes said. "Fast, scandalous and wrong."

Later, a middle-aged Austen developed a crush on a doctor 10 years her junior, who was treating her brother.

"My judgment is she fancied him like mad," Hughes said.

Austen had been a tremendous flirt, and enjoyed partying, the screenwriter added.

"She was a normal woman," Hughes said. "If she went to a party, she would have had some wine and woken up with a hangover."

Hughes believes many letters may have been destroyed by Cassandra to spare the feelings of friends, family and neighbors, and to protect her sister's privacy.

"She was lively and ferocious. Some of the comments about her neighbors make your eyes water."

But there was enough in the letters to hint at "what might have been" in terms of romance, Hughes believes.

"We are very condescending nowadays, thinking they had buttoned-up and boring lives. But they were no more boring than ours, and some were more interesting.

"I am looking for Jane as she was, who we can relate to and understand in a modern world."

Reuters/Nielsen

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