My friend Mr. Broughton doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice. He read it about 10 years ago, and claims he remembers nothing about the plot or characters, but only a great exasperation with them all and annoyance with Jane Austen. (We are still friends. I am broadminded.) I had to get to the bottom of this, and we had a spirited little discussion on Facebook. He was fond of Wuthering Heights, he reported, though he is less so now, “the teenage angst having worn off.” We postulated that, he being from the South, he identified more with the bitterness of the looked-down-upon Northern English than with the comfortable mentality of the Home Counties. He claimed, not unusually, that Jane was just a chick-lit writer. He even had the temerity to compare Pride and Prejudice to Beverly Hills, 90210. That’s when I saw red. Was he implying, I said, that his sci-fi books have more truth, more knowledge useful to daily life, than Pride and Prejudice? Well, it ended with him agreeing to read Pride and Prejudice again (for Science), and me agreeing to read Dune (his favorite book).
I’m disturbed by the force of my reaction to his 90210 comment. I was trembling with rage. I mean, naturally we would all die in Jane’s defense, but why should his comment have upset me if I didn’t see some truth in it? Oh, I threw up lots of arguments to convince him of Jane’s awesomeness. Think of it as a detailed study of group dynamics, I said. Remember to read between the lines, I said. I asked him to try to identify with Lizzie’s situation and motives, even though they were “as alien to him as a space princess” (more alien, really). I popped out Austen’s famous dead baby quote to show him she wasn’t all sweetness and light.
Do any of you feel cut by the criticism that Jane was shallow? That she didn’t address the social issues of her day, or go into the depths of despair? That she was perhaps the Mozart to the Brontës’ Beethoven (or Liszt if one’s feeling catty)? I know perfectly well that she told the truth, as did Mozart. It isn’t the truth of sleepless nights, but it is the truth of daily life. And that’s just as valuable. Isn’t it?
Whether you call it literary breaking and entering or the greatest publishing scheme of the new millennium, surely the Austen mash-up trend rates some thought from the Austen community, right? And yet. Love it or hate it, readers, this market isn’t living up to its potential. In fact, we at Austenacious have come up with a new technique by which publishers could amuse/alienate twice as many readers with each attempt! Not all mashups need involve Jay-Z, the walking dead, or anything trendy at all, really: by mashing Austen novels up with other classic literature, we see the rationalizing force of Jane on some decidedly harebrained stories, as well as some extra adventure for the ladies and gentlemen of the Austen canon. What could possibly go wrong?
A few examples:
Detective Sherlock Holmes investigates a murder in Grace Church Street, Cheapside, London: a sweet-tempered newlywed from the country has offed her uppity sister-in-law, a fact he deduces from traces of poisoned wedding cake (a double wedding!) and the fact that neither the guilty party nor her equally nice husband can lie worth a darn. The murderer’s smarter but less-pretty sister may have aided and abetted.
On one of her many walks, Marianne Dashwood falls down a mysterious hole, drinks potion left by a stranger, shrinks (which is what happens when we drink potions left by strangers), and ends up in a magical and dangerous fantasy land. There’s bird-head croquet with Lady Middleton and tea with Johnny Depp. Eventually, she finds it was all a dream and that she has learned precisely nothing about controlling her emotions or anything else remotely useful in life.
The Bennet girls encounter four Civil War-era sisters from a Transcendentalist family in Massachusetts; a good time is had by all, including many picnics, though the youngest from each family duke it out for the attention of all eleven (combined) relatives. The eldest sisters atone for all wrongs by sheer force of their goodness, as the third-oldest play a duet on the piano.
Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth visit a lighthouse either near Lyme or the Isle of Skye, an experience colored by an unreliable narrator and the problems of memory and perception. Nothing else happens, but it’s significant. Later, the author walks into a river with stones in her pockets.
Haters Gonna Hate Edition, Parts I and II:
Catherine Earnshaw wanders the moors until a chance encounter with the post-Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland persuades her to give up the obsession with Gothic bad boys. Heathcliff gives up. The sun comes out, and everybody realizes things weren’t so bad after all.
In a fit of pique, Emma Woodhouse runs off and finds adventure on the river and/or in caves (possibly around Box Hill), and teaches generations of American high school students about racism and the dangers of picnics.
Emily Bronte and Mark Twain, née Samuel Clemens, each die a second death of embarrassment and rage. Jane, in an impressive show of self-control, manages not to laugh in public. A new literary sub-genre is born.
Okay, this really isn’t about cake at all. It’s just, well, we’ve seen lots of reports lately that the ship called Jane’s Popularity has sailed. Apparently, the well has run dry—we’re fresh out of original texts to adapt, reinterpretations and new ideas to build on, and embarrassing Colin Firth memorabilia to buy. So…I guess that’s it! We’re moving on! Who’s up for paintball? Pottery? Roller derby?
But hark! Who are these magical sisters called Bronte, sent to save us from our delusions about snappy dialogue and sexy Regency necklines?
Complete & Unabridged has some good things to say on the subject today, but this isn’t the first we’ve heard of the masses moving on to Bronte territory: with the coming of next year’s adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, rumor has it that Haworth and the moors are the new place to be, literarily speaking. Cue midnight Thornfield attic tours, Team Rochester t-shirts, and a sudden interest in that severe center part in five, four, three…
Trust us. We know how these literary fandom things go. If you need some pointers, Bronteites, we’d be happy to help.
Here’s the awesome thing about books, though: You don’t have to choose. This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t a comment on your character. You can love Austen and the Brontes! You’re allowed to love the sparkling wit and domestic wisdom of Austen even as you sweat over Jane Eyre’s impending homelessness in the north country! You can long for a ball while also pondering therapeutic options for the residents of Thrushcross Grange! The only one who cares is probably Charlotte Bronte, and—I do hate to be the bearer of bad news—she’s dead.
Furthermore, readership—even new readership—is not a zero-sum game. A rise in Bronte popularity does not equal an Austenian fall from grace. Even if nobody ever adapts another Austen novel (oh, IMDB rumor snap!), Jane probably has more fans—dedicated, passionate fans—at this point in history than ever before. Nobody here is in danger of losing much of anything, except maybe a bit of the spotlight and a puzzling spot on the chick lit shelf. Whatever happens, the work isn’t diminished; we can afford to be generous. After all, how amazing would it be if everybody read Austen and the Brontes? And Eliot and Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell and all the rest of the greats, right down the line? Surely a revived reading culture, whether it begins with a truth universally acknowledged or with a little girl hiding in the library, is worth a little getting along?
Seriously, people. You should hear my “Kum ba ya.”