Did Jane Austen’s heroines have sexual fantasies?

Of course. Which is what made Sunday night’s PBS Masterpiece interpretation of her ‘Northanger Abbey’ so delightful.

Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s earliest written (though posthumously published) novel is a brilliant combination of narrative and dialogue lifted directly from the novel, with the addition of his own insightful take on the story. We hear excerpts from Catherine Morland’s journal entries – something not provided in the novel – and see brief and passionate fantasies whipped up by Catherine’s reading of popular novels and her own charging hormones. The fantasies are so brief as to be welcome and intriguing. A previous BBC version of the novel expanded the sequences into unappetizing super-sized chunks of fantasy that gave me nothing but heartburn.

The actress cast as Catherine is lovely, somewhat awkward, and very naïve, just as she should be. I also liked her clerical love interest, Mr. Tilney. He is lightweight and yet charming, sarcastic and yet sincere, just as he is meant to be. Interestingly, the actress who plays Catherine’s companion in Bath, Mrs. Allen, was the heroine of Mansfield Park in an earlier BBC version. I found her plain-faced, stodgy Fanny Price annoying and uninteresting. She is much better cast as the middle-aged worshipper of wardrobe in ‘Northanger Abbey.’

Andrew Davies, who has written many Masterpiece Theatre productions, obviously understands the push and pull between slavish allegiance to a literary classic and creative freedom. He has found, in ‘Northanger Abbey,’ just the right balance.

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