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Lost in Austen

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Ellen West - web producer | 15:35 UK time, Wednesday, 17 September 2008

I have to admit to being bemused by the disappointing audience figures and sometimes savage critical reaction to ITV's drama series Lost in Austen. Jemima Roper stars as Amanda Price, a modern day devotee of the works of Jane Austen who finds herself living in the world of Pride and Prejudice. A cursory glance around the internet suggests that most of the reviewers have dismissed the programme as a Life on Mars rip-off, which might be part of the reason why it was commissioned, but underestimates the prevalence of such time travel and parallel world stories in science fiction. And this series is science fiction - although with a more female bent than often is the case.

I'm not claiming that Lost in Austen is great art, but it is a well-acted and enjoyable series which imagines what the result might be if a reader were to enter the book and tried to influence events. I can think of plenty of counterfactual novels (like Philip K Dick's Man in the High Castle where the characters inhabit a world in which Germany and Japan won WWII), and books and films that rework existing fictional characters (too many to mention, but there are a number based on Pride and Prejudice, including Pemberley and An Assembly Such as This) but I'm struggling to think of existing stories that are transformed by outside intervention in this way. My friend Karen has alerted me to the comic fantasy series Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde, but I can't think of any others. Let me know if any occur to you.

I'm finding Lost in Austen diverting, and unpredictable. I was aghast to see that in this upside down version of Pride and Prejudice, Jane has to marry Mr Collins. Mr Collins, that fawning creep!? The pressures that force Jane into this alliance bring into focus a central preoccupation of the novel - money. Amanda Price may loved Pride and Prejudice for the romance, but she is discovering the vice-like grip of convention and the absolute power of economics in 18th-century England, aspects of the novel that aren't always highlighted in adaptations. I'm sure that it will have a soft-focus happy ending, but I think that this series is far more fun and inventive than any number of Ugly Bettys or Desperate Housewives. Episode 3 is on tonight.

On a darker note, I watched the two episodes on ITV.com's catch-up service, and the quality was very poor. At certain points the image disintegrated into a slideshow, only to improve dramatically when it reached the advertisements. Not impressed.

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