In addition to jumpstarting a contemporary resurgence of the female gaze, this scene — and others Davies added of Darcy bathing and fencing, trying to get Lizzy Bennet off his mind — also humanized Austen’s hero, showing that outside of social situations, where he is formal and arrogant, he has a passionate, natural side. And he has the hots for Elizabeth.
His running into Lizzy while in a compromised position thus flows beautifully from the plot itself. Until this scene, she has been the primary object of both his scorn and lust. Yet at this very moment, she is beginning to shift the gaze, to look carefully at him from a distance and reconsider what kind of person he is: first she examines his house, then she studies his portrait, and then, Austen notes, unexpectedly gazes at the man himself. By literally stripping Darcy down, Davies doesn’t just make the adaptation more humorous and sexy, he also dramatizes a figurative moment in Austen’s plot, the moment Lizzy begins to truly see her future husband without prejudice.
We all know the story from there: so successful was Davies’ slight tweak of Darcy’s storyline that the press coined the term “Darcymania.” From there, Colin Firth’s career was jump-started, and the rest is history. After a decade, Davies repeated the “sex up Austen” gambit in two other fairly well-received adaptations. In 2008’s miniseries of Sense and Sensibility, instead of pond-diving Darcy we got wood-chopping Edward Ferrars, played by Dan Stevens of soon-to-be Downton Abbey fame.
Edward, unlike Darcy, is directly repressed. He’s engaged secretly to Lucy Steele, but has fallen in love with Elinor Dashwood. Naturally, he gets out his frustration by stalking out into the rain and going ham on the woodpile. It just so happens that his shirt gets wet, too. Keeping things balanced between the genders, Davies ensures that Edward’s love interest Elinor Dashwood — who, like Edward, is exceedingly proper in company — also contends with her feelings about family’s troubles by beating carpets most vigorously.
But what is most notable, and scandalous, about Davies’ Sense and Sensibility 2008 is the opening scene, which puts on the screen something Austen only alludes to: the cad Mr. Willoughby’s seduction of young Eliza, Colonel Brandon’s ward. There is nudity, and murmuring, and it’s all very brief — if you tuned in a few minutes late you missed it — but it was enough to get people talking about the adaptation, which yet again was otherwise a somber, straightforward and melancholy take on Austen’s novel. A spoonful of seduction makes Austen’s medicine go down.
And in the Northanger Abbey adaptation that arrived around the same time, Davies’ hand in the script was obvious: in this version, young Catherine Morland’s lurid fantasies are moved from the pages of the gothic novels she’s reading right onto the screen, and enacted:
As with Mr. Darcy, there are bathtubs involved.
This adaptation also dramatizes one of Austen’s implied or hinted-at seduction scenes that never actually occurs, with a young Cary Mulligan getting dressed after an assignation and naively thinking the surrender of her virtue means she’s engaged to be married. Ah, the folly of youth.
But away from Austen, Davies doesn’t always sex up his screenplays. His much-acclaimed adaptations of Dickens behemoths like Little Dorrit and Bleak House are less meddled-with; they tend to up the creep factor and grotesquerie rather than the romance and seduction. That’s partly because Dickens is far less subtle than Austen, with a lot less sublimated sexual passion in his novels (the proto-Freudian treasure trove Great Expectations being an exception ) — in fact, most of his love affairs are treacly and chaste.
From my perspective as a fan, Davies’ scripts expertly capture longing and unrequited passion, and tend to be less interested in happy endings and consummation (like Austen herself, who tied things up in such a neat way as to draw attention to the haste of her conclusions). He’s also been known to sex down some of his adaptations — I have a soft spot for his hilarious adaptation of the pornographic memoirs of “lady of pleasure” Fanny Hill, rendered for the screen with such sly wit that it’s almost PG-13 (although not quite). And strangely, Davies’ otherwise by-the-book adaptation of Middlemarch (featuring a very brooding young Rufus Sewell) moves George Elliot’s climactic love scene from where its author put it in a library, with kissing and thunder and rain in the distance, to a genteel garden in sunlight. It’s blasphemous, my least favorite Davies-related moment.
Of course the fact that this angers me more than any carpet-beating or bathtub fantasies appended to Austen’s text shows that I, like many modern viewers, am more willing to forgive an excess of flesh, clingy garments and innuendo made manifest in my period drama than I am inclined to forgive an excess of sunshine and chastity. No doubt Davies has figured that out, and our reward will be the turgid War and Peace we deserve.