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Thursday, January 21, 2010


Laura Miller has a fascinating article over on about the derivative fiction that has developed around Jane Austen and her fiction. Pride and Prejudice in particular has spawned a number of sequels, which from my perusals mostly concern the Darcy marriage, their children, and sex. We can't forget the sex; Elizabeth and Darcy sex scenes are quite important in this sub-genre. (I'm no prude, and I enjoy the occasional (well-written) sex scene, but I think Pride and Prejudice does just fine without one.) And then there is Pride/Prejudice, which, as Miller describes, "posits that before Elizabeth and Darcy united, they each had same-sex affairs: Elizabeth with Charlotte Lewis and Darcy with Mr. Bingley." I . . . there are no words.

The popularity of books like this mystify me to a certain extent. It just seems so unnecessary. I understand the impulse to want to continue a beloved story, but especially when the original is a classic, I find the derivative works to be disappointing more often than not. If someone is going to retell a classic, or add on to it, I want the work to reach for more than just a simple continuation of the characters, or a shallow reimagining -- the derivative work should be able to stand on its own.

With Pride and Prejudice in particular, the derivative works I've looked at not only water down Austen, they build a fantasy around the time period that completely obscures the realities. Call me a crazy feminist, but as much of a catch as Mr. Darcy is, I'd much rather live in a world where I can vote. And own property. (I'm also a big fan of indoor plumbing and modern medicine.) I think some fans of Austen forget just how difficult life was for women and the lower classes. As Miller writes, "[t]he chick lit take on Austen is forever trying to subtract the brutal social and economic realities from her fiction." One of the most affecting scenes for me in Pride and Prejudice is the conversation Elizabeth and Charlotte have about Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collin. Charlotte, not having Elizabeth's or Jane's status, connections, or beauty, agrees to marry Mr. Collin (a sanctimonious, pompous toady) because it is an excellent match that will give her the security she needs. I cannot imagine a more miserable life than marriage to a man I neither love nor respect, but then I have the luxury of not having to make such a marriage for my own survival. The idea of marriages as love matches is fairly recent, and we lose sight that historically marriages were for the purpose of securing futures and fortunes and children, not love and companionship. As Charlotte explains in a separate scene, it is actually quite a good marriage for her -- she has no financial worries, and her husband is not likely to abuse her or humiliate her. She encourages his interests, such that he does not actually spend too much time with her, and once she has children she will have more than enough to keep her occupied and content. Our modern sensibilities might tempt us to pity her, but as she told Elizabeth, she does not want pity because her circumstances do not merit it. This aspect of Austen's world is all but ignored by those fans who only want to focus on the fantasy that Mr. Darcy embodies. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the romance in Pride and Prejudice (I sure do), but it seems to almost cheapen Austen's talent (and what she was trying to say) to ignore everything else.

None of this is to say I don't value derivative works (and I must admit, I am sorely tempted to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Without derivative works and retellings we would not have The Wide Sargasso Sea, Grendel, Till We Have Faces, Wicked, The Hours, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, most of Shakespeare's plays, and countless other works. As I said above, I just think the work should have something of its own to say.

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