Jane Eyre Goes Sci Fi: Jenna Starborn

How does author Sharon Shinn translate Bronte’s Jane Eyre into a sci fi setting? Here are some examples from her novel Jenna Starborn:

The Helen Burns character is not killed by consumption, but by radiation exposure from a machine she is working on. So in both cases, there is the implication that this girl’s life could have been saved if the people in charge took better care of their students.

The Mr. Rochester character does not dress up as a gypsy, but uses an electronic fortunetelling program to manipulate his guests.

The wife in the attic is not a madwoman, she is a malfunctioning cyborg. And the question in the sci fi setting, as in Bronte’s day, is how human is she? If you are insane, are you a full person? This was a hot topic of the 1800s. And of course sci fi has long debated what defines personhood. Is Data, my favorite android from Star Trek the Next Generation, a person? What about all those machines in the blockbuster Matrix films? Are members of an alien race people? Jane Eyre is primarily about identity, and sci fi loves debating identity.

Endemic to this debate is Jenna herself. She is a test tube creation, ordered by a childless woman to her preferred genetic retail specifications. A bit of this DNA, a bit of that DNA. Whatever the buyer wants. However, when the woman is able to give birth to her own biological child, she loses all affection for Jenna. She is unable to love her, this artificially cobbled-together specimen of chromosomes. So Jenna, like the cyborg wife, must face questions of true personhood. Jenna must discover she is equal to everyone else on a cosmic level, just as Bronte’s Jane Eyre tells Rochester, “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh. It is my spirit that addresses your spirit, just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood equal at God’s feet, equal—as we are!”

Sharon Shinn carries out the Jane Eyre parallels convincingly in her created sci fi space world. Check out Jenna Starborn:

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Jane Does the Time Warp: Translating Classics into Future Settings

Bride and Prejudice

Bride and Prejudice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Modern takes on period novels, especially British ones, are always difficult. This is because the values and class system of 18th and 19th century England are not those of today.

Case in point: Lydia Bennet elopes with Mr. Wickham 200 years ago. The risks: Lydia could be abandoned at any moment without means to survive, the Bennet family’s reputation is ruined, the potential marriages of Jane and Elizabeth are over. Certainly Elizabeth assumes she has lost any chance she had with Darcy (even as she is confused as to whether she wants another chance).

Now we rewrite it: Lydia Bennet elopes with George Wickham in modern society. The risks: Uh… Unwed couples moving in together is so common this doesn’t add much tension to the modern audience. For the Christian audience, we understand Lydia and George Wickham probably ought to get married first, but society at large doesn’t have an issue with it. So modern rewrites have to add another dimension of threat. Lydia not only runs away with Wickham, he’s encouraging her to use drugs and get an abortion at an unapproved medical facility. He’s taking her to Vegas under the promise to marry her but he’s really going to gamble away her money for college at a casino. I’ve seen all these suggestions, and they don’t raise the stakes quite the way the original book did.

Another complication of replanting period novels like P&P into modern settings is the biggest barrier to marrying Elizabeth in Darcy’s mind is that of class. Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice has the best solution to this, by making it not merely a financial issue but a racial and cultural one. Not to mention India still operates on the caste system. But still, I found myself disliking this Darcy for being so slow to see beyond the cultural barriers. I don’t want a modern Darcy to be a cultural snob, even for half a movie.

This is one reason why period novels can live in sci fi more comfortably than they can in the early 21st century. Sci fi already innately demands the author build a new world (or universe) with rules about mores, religion, and class. Class conflict can become the conflict between alien species. So much sci fi is already a commentary on the times in which it was written. Hello, Star Trek. Hello, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Hello, Brave New World. Sci fi is half speculation on what could be, and half speculation on what is.

Jenna Starborn, a sci fi version of Jane Eyre, works because Sharon Shinn has reimagined the constrictions of 19th century English society, but with genetic manipulation, cyborgs, and holograms. And you know what? It works.

Analysis of the techniques in Jenna Starborn next blog.

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Austen Horror or Horrified?

There have been few times in my life I committed a Daffy-Duck-style double-take. One was in the movie theater last week when the preview for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter rolled. I blanched, giggled, hid my face in my hands, and groaned, “Make it stop.”  Another of these time times occurred in Barnes and Noble, as I passed a display by the front door: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

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Eh?

And this is not the only attempt to blend Austen with other genres. There are Jane Austen mysteries. Even a whole slew of Austen vampires:

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In all fairness, I will admit I have not read these books. I cannot rightfully praise or disparage the writing style or ability of these authors. What I mean to do today is address the surprising notion of bringing out the darkness in Austen. Crossing Jane with murder and monsters.

I tend to think of Austen’s works as a soufflé. It is not that her works lack substance, not by any means. Like a soufflé, they are full of rich, filling ingredients. But they are mixed, whipped, and baked with such careful precision that one early peek into the oven will cause the whole structure to collapse. Only a master chef like Austen, the Julia Child of early novelists, can cook up such a plot, where the heaviness feels light. Jane has a great deal to say on weighty matters, but she never feels heavy or preachy. The deception of meringue, after all, is that the texture is light and sweet, but in reality, it’s made of egg –meat—without a drop of yolk, not beaten a second too little or too much.

Is this an unfair assessment? How much darkness is really in Austen? We can’t overlook the elopements, adultery, broken promises, life-threatening illnesses, swindling, familial favoritism and neglect, and implied murder that form key hingepoints in her plots. I invite discussion.

I would call Austen’s observation of human foibles biting, at times. Is that a form of vampirism?

Maybe the problem is I just don’t care for horror. Horror movies either gross me out or make me laugh. I have read Twilight, in an attempt to understand why the many teenagers I work with love it. But when I step out of realism in literature, I tend to seek out Vulcans, fairies, the denizens of sci fi and fantasy. I don’t hang out with vampires, werewolves, and the undead. Would Austen? I don’t know. Maybe. Clearly she read gothic novels. Otherwise, how could she parody them in Northanger Abbey? But I get the sense this was a tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasure for her. She was able to read, and enjoy, and laugh at herself for enjoying the extremes of such novels.

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

―    Jane Austen,    Northanger Abbey

Still, I ask, what’s next? The Persuasion of Yeti? The Creature from the Black Lagoon Comes to Hertsfordshire? Mr. Bingley is the Boogeyman?

Who am I to judge cross-genre rewrites of classics? After all, I enjoyed Sharon Shinn’s sci fi take on Jane Eyre, entitled Jenna Starborn.

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More on that next time.

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The Cult of Lady Catherine de Bourgh

C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition ...

Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins is a clergyman. He is the most devoted, sincere disciple a deity could wish for. The irony (Jane Austen– ironic?) is that Mr. Collins is not a Christian clergyman, but a high priest of the Cult of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The evidence:

  1. Mr. Collins lives by every maxim from Lady Catherine’s lips, no matter how trivial. She controls every aspect of his daily routine. Shelves in the closet? Happy thought indeed.
  2. Mr. Collins witnesses to everyone in the book, in hopes of converting others to Lady Catherine.
  3. Mr. Collins sings praises to Lady Catherine.
  4. Mr. Collins turns Lady Catherine’s estate, Rosings Park, into a place of pilgrimage. He recounts the number of windows. He can detail the size, shape, style, and price of the staircases in her home. Receiving an invitation to dine at Rosings is in Mr. Collins’ mind a form of predestination.
  5. As another person might put on his “Sunday best” to go to church, Mr. Collins has a specific mode of dress for visiting Rosings. He assures Elizabeth not to worry about the simplicity of her attire, as “Lady Catherine likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.”
  6. Mr. Collins assumes any child of Lady Catherine’s must also be a deity, by virtue of divine inheritance. Therefore, he also worships the wilting, talentless Anne de Bourgh. “She is, alas, too sickly to venture much into society. And as I have told her Ladyship, she has thus deprived the court of its brightest jewel.”
  7. Lady Catherine dictates and blesses certain sacraments, including his marriage.
  8. Lady Catherine is his Provider and Sustainer, since she gave him the living at Hunsford.
  9. Mr. Collins fears Lady Catherine’s retribution against certain sins against Herself. For example, when Elizabeth begs off going to tea because she has a headache, Mr. Collins cannot “conceal his apprehension of Lady Catherine’s being rather displeased.”

Most telling, Mr. Collins references Lady Catherine ten times more than he references God or Christianity. He is an idol worshipper right out of the Old Testament, but a funny one.

Austen uses words of religion and devotion in describing Mr. Collins’ interactions with Lady Catherine. In Elizabeth’s first visit to Rosings Park, Mr. Collins “took his seat at the bottom of the table, by her ladyship’s desire, and looked as if he felt life could furnish nothing greater.” Mr. Collins is the devotee, submitting to his lady’s decrees. “He carved, he ate, he praised” every dish on the table. “Lady Catherine seemed gratified by their excessive admiration.” The deity accepts worship. She delivers her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner, “as proved she was not used to have her judgment controverted.” Mr. Collins and company “ascend” the stairs to Rosings, as though approaching the throne of heaven. Austen also deftly slips into this scene the words “authority,” “miraculous,” “rapturous,” “awed,” “witness,” and repeatedly in association with Lady Catherine, “condescension.” This observation of rank is not merely the old British class system at work, it hints at the divine gap. The forms of dining are more than manners in high society; they are elevated to sacred ritual. At the dinner table, there are all the servants and articles of plate which Mr. Collins had “foretold.” With this well-chosen word, Austen assigns Mr. Collins (and he assigns himself) the role of prophet. Later in the book, Mr. Collins assigns himself the role of angelic messenger, warning the Bennets of his deity’s wrath should Elizabeth marry Mr. Darcy.

Charlotte, her sister Mariah, her father Sir Lucas, and especially Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne and Anne’s companion Mrs. Jenkinson are pulled in to worship at Lady Catherine’s feet of clay. Even Col. Fitzwilliam and Darcy, when they visit, submit halfway to the Religion of De Bourgh. I don’t believe for a moment Darcy is awed by his aunt; he just finds it easier to go along with the established rituals with which he was raised.

Elizabeth Bennet is the first person in the book (and maybe Lady Catherine’s life) to declare the emperor has no clothes. Well, that’s an inexact statement. Elizabeth simply, in a move right out of the book of Daniel, refuses to bow down before the idol. At first she does so with fair politeness, shunting aside Lady Catherine’s demands for worship. Elizabeth muses about the appropriate age for girls to come out into society when Lady Catherine would prefer she keep her opinion to herself. With a smile Elizabeth refuses to own her age. Later in the book, when Lady Catherine forbids Elizabeth to marry Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s refusal to bow is the focus of the scene. “And will you promise me never to enter into such an engagement?” Lady Catherine says. “I will not be intimidated into anything so unreasonable,” Elizabeth replies. “You can now have nothing further left to say. You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house.” Elizabeth says “beg” but in reality, Lady Catherine has no choice, as Elizabeth throws the false idol out of the house.

It is Elizabeth’s refusal to join the Cult of Lady Catherine that finally pushes Darcy to break away from the false religion himself. He sins against his aunt by marrying Elizabeth, when he was, as Lady Catherine put it, “destined” to marry Anne de Bourgh.

Queen Nebuchadnezzar has met her match.

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UnaBated Admiration

 Miss Bates enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.

Emma, 1816, Jane Austen                  

                                 

Okay, so Miss Bates prattles. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with her on a jammed elevator. But even if she is a little ridiculous, she is embraced by the community at Highbury. Why? Possibly it is because she used to be significant. We learn that Miss Bates used to be well-off, and is now living in reduced circumstances. But it can’t be only that.

Miss Bates is, for all her inescapable babble, kind. She “keeps no record of wrongs.” When Emma insults her at Box Hill, Miss Bates is self-conscious, but doesn’t even think to be angry at Emma for the insult. Miss Bates never complains about her reduced circumstances. She never complains of her silent mother. (Mind, the mother couldn’t get a word in edgewise if she tried.) I always wondered, is Miss Bates oblivious, or forcibly determined to make the best of things?

I think of that scene on Box Hill. I would rather spend my time among boring, well-meaning people like Miss Bates than witty, cutting people, ready to pounce on my faults, like Frank Churchill. I fancy that I am a little like Miss Bates: “sure to say three very boring things as soon as I open my mouth.” Every time I find myself talking about the weather, I am having a Miss Bates moment. I just need something to say, so I inject a great deal of enthusiasm into something of no importance. Indeed, at some social functions I discover I have adamant opinions about things I never had opinions about before. The best stinky candle scent. Hot sauce. Zip codes. Sometimes, the less we have to say, the more zealously we say it.

Jane Austen recognized better than anyone both the stupidity and necessity of idle chatter. Some readers find her boring for this very reason. “Nothing happens,” they complain. What they don’t understand is that “busy nothings” are the fuel of society. And that sometimes, like Miss Bates, what we say is not nearly as important as the attitude in which we say it, and the attitude with which is it received. Who has not had a pointless conversation with a friend that would never have earned an airing on NPR, but cemented your friendship because it made you both giggle for no reason?

Dear Lord, let me have patience with the Miss Bateses in my life. Open my ears to the human being behind the prattle. Let me see them as you see them. And let others see beyond me own Miss Bateness, when I have nothing interesting to say but so want to contribute to the conversation.

And then, Lord, after listening patiently, let me escape the conversation in a reasonable amount of time.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 3)

Image at the beginning of Chapter 34. Darcy pr...
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Today, the worst proposal in Jane Austen.

By that I mean not that it’s bad writing, but that Austen made them intentionally disastrous. A proposal Austen wrote to put the blemishes of our would-be-lovers under a fluorescent lightbulb. And therefore, instigate character change.

And the winner, by the landslide, is Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Darcy: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Again, the brilliance of Austen is in the setup. Lizzie never sees it coming, nor do the readers, unless they are particularly astute (I wasn’t). I have a good friend who says the first time she watched the movie she sprang off the sofa on the line above and shouted, “WHAT?!!!” among some other choice words. Some of the movies give hints of Darcy’s regard too early on. I think all first-time readers of P&P should stand up and shout their incredulity at Darcy when they reach this scene.

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

This is good general advice for life. You don’t start any proposal of any kind, asking for donations, nominating someone for office, etc, by enumerating all the arguments against the idea.

But there is a larger lesson for the Christian reader. Lizzie and the reader are both astonished by this declaration of love because there is nothing to back it up. Oh, there are hints here and there that Darcy is inclined toward our heroine, but they are few and far between: a dance, a conversation over a piano-forte. Yet even Lizzie’s most positive encounters with Darcy are at best, ambiguous. Darcy does not yet comprehend that love is not merely a feeling. It must be borne out in words and more importantly, actions.

Lizzie turns Darcy down like a thermostat in a heat wave. It’s the best favor she could have done him, because it challenges Darcy to look at himself. Later in the book he does demonstrate love for Lizzie in words by being kind to the Lizzie’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Most notably, he demonstrates love in action by finding the perfidious Wickham and enabling (insisting) he marry Lizzie’s sister Lydia to save both Lydia and the Bennet family from scandal. And he does this in secret, the ultimate show of love freely given, without expectation of return.

If I were to pick the one reason Darcy fails so abysmally in this proposal scene, I would quote the famous passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. “Love is not proud.” And as the title of the book is Pride and Prejudice, I think I have good evidence for saying so. But my personal challenge from this painful proposal is this: like Darcy, do I show my love for others in word and action, or do I just think I do?

Although Darcy is hurt and mad as all-get-out after this blundered proposal, he does in the end admit the good it did him. Which shows a trait I’d like to develop: to be grateful for correction. After our happy union of lovers, Darcy admits, “I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, if not in principle.”

Here in one sentence is the summary of the Christian struggle.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 2)

"But there was no doing anything with Mr ...

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I meant to reveal my nomination for the worst proposal in Austen today, but I am sidetracked because I forgot to present the runner-up for funniest proposal:

In a very honorable second place:

Mr. Elton to Emma Woodhouse in Emma.

I thought about categorizing this as a bad proposal. But the proposal itself is not bad. It earns perhaps a 6.5 out of 10 on both artistry and technical merit.  Mr. Elton says some sweet ( if exaggerated) things. As you will recall, Mr. Elton has finagled a private carriage for himself and Emma on the way home from a Christmas party.  He is “hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him.”  He seizes her hand, calls
her charming, tells her he has thought of no one else for weeks.

Indeed, there’s only one thing wrong with this very fine specimen of a marriage proposal:

He’s proposing to the wrong woman.

As with Mr. Collins, it is Austen’s setup in the chapters leading up to this scene that makes the proposal so tragically funny. Emma has been trying to set Mr. Elton up with her friend, Harriet Smith.  Only here in the carriage does Austen reveal how her characters interpreted and misinterpreted the situation.  I think those who imagine Jane Austen as a detective (as seen in some spin-offs) are not so far off:   Tiny hints planted earlier are revealed and explained here in a new light, rather like the payoff in Agatha Christie.  Mr. Elton was praising Emma’s drawing, not Harriet as her subject.  His charade (riddle) about courtship might have been added to Harriet’s collection, it was Emma who asked him for a submission and it was for Emma he intended the hint.  The proposal reveals a good deal about character and twists the plot in a whole new direction, all in the  ¾ mile ride from Randalls to Hartfield.  Austen is, as ever, economic.

And funny.  Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s first professions as inspired by too much Christmas wine.  And Elton, taking a page from Mr. Collins, is a hard suitor to unsuit.  Even after Emma assures him he is utterly mistaken in her feelings, as she sits in shocked silence, he takes another stab at matrimony:

“Two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed: ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse!  Allow me to interpret this interesting silence.  It confesses that you have long understood me.’”

Ah, yet again the brilliance of Austen.  Pairing together just the right words.  Interesting silence.  Two words strung together, if they are exactly the right words, speak volumes. If only I could learn to edit myself like Austen!

So are there any lessons the Christian reader can take from this scene?  Certainly.

  1. Things are not always as they appear.
  2. The successful matchmakers in scripture tend to be older than those whose lives they are arranging.  Naomi did a pretty good job with Ruth and Boaz. Lots of useful man-catching hints about the use of perfume, good clothing, and gleaning.  But if you are in the same age group as your victims – er – the lucky recipients of your interference, you may be mistaken for a primary player instead of a Yenta. Matchmaking, as we see in Sense and Sensibility, is an old woman’s game.
  3. Don’t make important life decisions after nipping at the Christmas wine. Even if your judgment is not impaired, people might assume it is.

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