Tag Archives: Jane Austen

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 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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The Good, The Bad, and The Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen

"To assure you in the most animated langu...

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Today, my nomination for the funniest: Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

If this proposal scene were the only reason for including the pedantic Mr. Collins in P&P, I would still commend Austen. Like Lizzie, we put up with Mr. Collins’ ingratiating company for several chapters before this showstopping payoff. Indeed, in every P&P film version I have seen, this is one of the highlights of the whole story. The camera homes in on every nuance of body language, every clearing of the throat, every art of the comedian(enne’s) timing.  One of my favorite touches in film is how Lizzie casually and consciously puts obstacles between herself and her unwanted suitor. In both the A&E Jennifer Ehle version and the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, she roadblocks Mr. Collins with a vase of flowers. Flowers are also put to good effect in the Keira Knightley version, when before Mr. Collins even begins his proposal he displays a tiny purple flower under Lizzie’s nose. She regards this as a ticking time bomb. I imagine this is the audition scene for every actor who has ever portrayed Mr. Collins.

What makes the proposal so deliciously funny is that the woman he is infatuated with is not even in the room: Lady Catherine DeBourgh. When I say infatuated I am not insinuating Mr. Collins intends any romantic union with his patroness. She is more his goddess divine. This proposal to Elizabeth is in fact an act of his worship of Lady Catherine. He references Lady Catherine as a primary motivator in this scheme. While Jane and Elizabeth are interchangeable in Mr. Collins’ mind, Lady Catherine is such a deity he can quote her verse for verse:

 ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. —
Chuse properly, chuse a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.”

Another day, we can debate whether it is possible for people to preach on subjects they haven’t experienced.

I also enjoy that Mr. Collins says he is using “the most animated language” and assures Lizzie of “violence of his affections,” when it’s clear he’s just going through what he believes are the proper motions.

I confess I feel the tiniest bit sorry for Mr. Collins, as played by David Bamber in the A&E version, at the moment Lizzie gives up and walks out of the room.  He wipes the sweat from his brow and murmurs about how eventually she will find his proposal acceptable.  But I cannot feel all that bad for him, as she isn’t really proposing to her.  Lizzie is interchangeable with any woman in Mr. Collins’ mind. To Mr. Collins, marriage is like a cake mix: just add bride.

Next blog:
the bad proposals. Votes, anyone?

 

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