'Lost in Austen' is a Subversive Tribute to 'Pride & Prejudice'

Alex Kingston and Hugh Bonneville as Mrs. and Mr. Bennet, Jemima Rooper as Amanda, Elliot Cowan and Gemma Arterton as Darcy and Elizabeth in 'Lost in Austen's Key Art

Alex Kingston and Hugh Bonneville as Mrs. and Mr. Bennet, Jemima Rooper as Amanda, Elliot Cowan and Gemma Arterton as Darcy and Elizabeth in 'Lost in Austen'


Released by ITV in 2008 and originally aired on Ovation in the U.S., Lost in Austen has a terrific cast and is one of the most wacko and inventive Austen interpretations ever made. The four-part series was directed by Dan Zeff and adapted from Austen’s 1813 novel by Guy Andrews (Victoria). It has some of the surrealism of another time-travel TV show from the same period, 2006’s Life on Mars, and a touch of Jasper Fforde’s book The Eyre Affair, in which fictional characters take on a life of their own outside the confines of their respective novels. Even better, it’s peppered with references and jokes that will delight the most fervent Janeite. It holds its own against the Austen movie canon, even daring to poke fun at the beloved 1995 Pride & Prejudice, and the clothes and settings, particularly the candlelight indoor scenes, are gorgeous.

Hear that? That’s Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble dryer.

21st-century Londoner Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finds her life unsatisfactory. Her boyfriend Michael (Daniel Percival), who likes his bike and his booze, proposes, between burps, offering the pull ring from his beer can. Like so much in her life, it’s just not good enough. She yearns for the sort of romance and manners she finds between the pages of her much-read copy of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Then, one morning, she finds Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) in her bathroom, which conceals a portal to Longbourn, the Bennets’ house. Thrilled and fascinated, Amanda enters the house and finds, delightfully, that she’s arrived the very day the family has discovered that Netherfield is let at last!

Picture shows: Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), holding her copy of 'Pride and Prejudice,' and Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) in the bathroom portal.

Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) and Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton).

© BritBox

To the background of Mrs. Bennet’s wails, Amanda meets Mr. Bennet (Hugh Bonneville), first name Claude, of all things. He’s surprised at her appearance but relieved to find her rational and impressed by his library. The Bennet family accepts her into the household, fascinated by her strange vocabulary and stranger clothes. Since she arrived wearing pants and a leather jacket, she’s encouraged to borrow Elizabeth’s clothes, but her hairstyle – heavy fringe and shoulder-length bob – is entirely wrong, particularly under a bonnet. However, it seems well able to look after itself as she fakes her way into the life of the Bennets. 

But she’s faced with a dilemma. Access to the doorway between the fictional world and Amanda’s flat is limited. Is she there to replace Jane Bennet as Mr. Darcy’s love interest or ensure that the novel’s plot plays out as Austen intended? And how much control does she have over her own feelings, let alone those of the Bennet family? It takes only a couple of outings – to church, where Amanda meets Charlotte Lucas (Michelle Duncan), and then to the Meryton assembly – for Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston) to become suspicious. She warns her any encroachment on the Bennet daughters’ marital prospects will have consequences. 

Mrs. Bennet in this version is young, appropriately enough for a woman who married as a teenager, and beneath her emotional outbursts, she is as sharp as a tack. Her business is to get her daughters married, and an uncouth imposter who upsets the servants will not get in the way. Meanwhile, Amanda meets Darcy (Elliot Cowan) at the Meryton Assembly and is appalled by his rudeness, although he asks her to dance to keep her away from his best friend Bingley (Tom Mison). Bingley is fascinated by Amanda, who, after downing several glasses of punch, heads outside for a cigarette break and then kisses him. 

Picture shows: Mr. Wickham (Tom Riley), Lydia (Perdita Weeks), Kitty (Florence Hoath), Jane (Morven Christie), Amanda (Jemima Rooper), Mary (Ruby Bentall), Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston)

Mr. Wickham (Tom Riley), Lydia (Perdita Weeks), Kitty (Florence Hoath), Jane (Morven Christie), Amanda (Jemima Rooper), Mary (Ruby Bentall), Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston).

© BritBox

The plot careens out of control as Mr. Collins, played with exquisite oily nastiness by Guy Henry, arrives at Longbourn. We also have our first glimpse of Wickham (Tom Riley), all gilded sexy charm in his regimentals, who ingratiates himself with the female Bennets, but not Amanda, who snaps, “Back off!” (Naturally, he’s fascinated.) To Amanda’s horror, Mr. Collins proposes to Jane (Morven Christie), who accepts him; it’s her duty since he will inherit Longbourn. Amanda fetches Charlotte to get the plot back on track, only for Charlotte, realizing she is being set up, to burst into tears and run away, followed immediately by Jane. 

Mr. Collins, in a proposing sort of mood, turns his attention to Amanda, the only dry-eyed and stationary female. Harsh words are exchanged at the Netherfield Ball. In true Mr. Knightley fashion, Amanda scolds Bingley for letting Jane go, paraphrasing Mr. Knightley, “Badly done, Bingley, badly done!” (Not that he ever really had her.) In a bid to get rid of Bingley, Amanda admits that her sexual preferences lie elsewhere. “You mean there really are ladies who steer the punt from the Cambridge end?” poor bemused Bingley gasps. When she tells Darcy he isn’t worthy of Elizabeth or herself, he tells her she is an abomination who spreads “mendacity, disorder, lewdness.” Ouch.

Mrs. Bennet announces it’s time for Amanda to leave, and once Jane and Mr. Collins are married, they too should go home. But the portal won’t open, not even with a pickaxe. Mr. Bennet gives her a pound, and asks her to reconcile with Jane. Amanda turns to the only person who’s yet to fail her – Wickham, smart, cynical, and a bit in love with her – who throws in another pound to buy Amanda a dress and schools her on proper fan flirtation a la francaise. (England may be at war with France, but with Paris? Never!) He also senses Amanda is lonely, not fitting in, and a long way from home. Obviously, she must marry rich, implying they’ll both exploit him.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played with chilling elegance by Lindsay Duncan, has a plan to marry the remaining Bennet sisters to Mr. Collins’ brothers. After accidentally addressing Miss Bingley as Bumface, Amanda has to invent a card game of the same name to cover her blunder. Bingley, who has become morose and drunk, throws his watch, a family heirloom, into the pot. Amanda wins the hand and returns the watch to him, gaining Lady Catherine’s approval, but warns Amanda off Darcy (earmarked for her own daughter). 

However, in a surprising turnaround, Darcy tells Amanda he was wrong to obstruct Bingley and Jane and invites her to Pemberley. Mrs. Bennet assumes the invitation is for the family, so everyone goes. Georgiana is at Pemberley, busily sorting her bead collection, a ploy by Darcy to keep his sister out of trouble. Georgiana tells Amanda she propositioned Wickham, who refused her, and as revenge, told her brother Wickham seduced her. Amanda realizes Wickham is more honorable than she’d thought. After a near-lethal shooting party, Darcy tells Amanda he is in love with her. It’s then that she stages the famous wet shirt scene in Pemberley’s ornamental lake for “a bit of a strange postmodern moment here.” Now she’s even more unclear about her status in Pride & Prejudice –– is she, the understudy, obliged to keep the plot going? Who is really in charge?

Darcy, already fuming about his sister’s dishonor and the loss of Bingley’s friendship, abruptly changes his mind when Amanda reveals that her sexual history is typical for a woman of her time. He cannot marry a woman with a past. Amanda is furious. She rips up her copy of Pride & Prejudice and throws the pages into the lake. Darcy finds the pages and reads them, shocked at his depiction. Is Amanda Jane Austen? The book is a “jaundiced impertinence.”

Elliot Cowan as Fitzwilliam Darcy in a very wet shirt in a pond in 'Lost in Austen'

Elliot Cowan as Fitzwilliam Darcy in 'Lost in Austen'


Miss Bingley tells Amanda her secret. Yes, she does steer the punt from the Cambridge end, and although she’s attracted to Amanda, will marry Darcy. Predictably, Darcy proposes to her, she accepts, and then Lydia elopes––with Bingley. Things are really out of control. Jane returns with her to Longbourn, where they decide it’s time for Mr. Bennet to step up, and his first action is to throw out the three revolting Collins brothers, who are smoking up a storm in the parlor. He then summons a coach and travels with Amanda to Hammersmith, assuming himself taking her home, only to find themselves in a bucolic village with a duck pond.

Wickham comes to the rescue with a cover story that Elizabeth has just left for Bath with Amanda’s parents. At the inn, they find Bingley and Lydia in what Bingley describes as a failed social experiment inspired by Rousseau. Mr. Bennet is furious. He grabs a sword from over the fireplace, injuring his head. Amanda runs for help through the nearest doorway, finding herself in modern-day Hammersmith. Michael has been trying to call and text her! (Listen, she’s been in a place with very bad cell service.) 

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, stuck in modern England, has become a nanny, and as Amanda runs off in search of her, she finds Darcy frozen in horror at the traffic, the noise, the inhabitants of modern London, and his own inadequacy. She hauls him aboard a bus, and they find Elizabeth at her employees’ house, transformed by a pixie haircut and easily handling 21st-century technology. But Elizabeth recognizes Darcy's name; she shows him a webpage with Colin Firth. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for over two hundred years.

Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price is shocked to discover Elliot Cowan as Fitzwilliam Darcy is a Teletubby guy in Lost In Austen

Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price is shocked to discover Elliot Cowan as Fitzwilliam Darcy in Lost In Austen


Hearing that her father is injured, Elizabeth prepares to leave with them, only for Michael and Amanda’s flatmate Piranha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to arrive. Sensing a rival, Michael attempts to fight with Darcy, who makes the absurd statement that only people who’ve been introduced to him may hit him. On their return to the flat, the portal is open, and Amanda, Elizabeth, and Darcy return to Georgian England, where the Bennet family are reconciled. Jane and Bingley are given hope by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s offer to dissolve her marriage, but there’s a twist. She will only do so if Amanda disappears.

So, how does the series end? Darcy invites Elizabeth to visit Pemberley, so does this mean the book is getting back on track? Amanda and Darcy share a long, passionate kiss at Pemberley, representing either farewell or reconciliation. Meanwhile, Bingley and Jane have decided to marry as soon as possible and move to America, where Lady Catherine de Bourgh presumably has little influence. But the issue remains that Amanda is a woman of her time, and she can’t keep Darcy in a wet shirt indefinitely. Amanda will always have Pride & Prejudice, whereas Darcy has to fulfill his destiny as an upper-class Georgian gentleman. Elizabeth has adapted to 2008, but she has just met Darcy, and this is possibly their beginning.

You may find the end intriguing or annoying, but Lost in Austen is a love letter to Jane Austen, acknowledging her genius and the books that greatly delight us. All four episodes are streaming on BritBox.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

More to Love from Telly Visions