Category Archives: Pride and Prejudice

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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