Lately, it seems lately like we all want to get inside of literature: to have our own holodeck or other scifi virtual reality device. It’s the promise of escape.
So I think the most interesting takes on the Jane Austen novels are the ones where people from our world, the “real world,” enter the world of the books. And what ensues? In Jasper Fforde‘s books, Jurisfiction agent Thursday Next works in a kind of meta-book world (lord, I said “meta”—just shoot me now), where she devotes herself to keeping literature the way we know it. In First Among Sequels, Thursday has to prevent Pride and Prejudice being turned into a reality book, where the characters have to perform tasks and will be voted out by chapter. She succeeds of course; Fforde is not attempting realism here, though his wry look at the silliness of the world around us is well worth getting into.
Have you seen Such Tweet Sorrow? It’s a real-time tweeting of Romeo and Juliet, a collaboration between Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company. So it’s almost like Romeo and Juliet: The Reality Show, and given the plot of Romeo and Juliet, no, they don’t encourage the actors to turn up the drama! It’s as authentic to the play as possible. I think it’s the next step in bringing literature into a virtual world setting.
Then I had a vision: Could we find volunteers to live out Pride and Prejudice and tweet about it in real time? Or live it as a reality show? I feel dizzy—can I really have made this up myself? Someone tell me people have already done this! Readers, I know you would sign up! Wouldn’t you?
Why, even now, you can take tours of filming locations for the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice and have supper at Longbourn. If you’re Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems and Urban Decay, you can even put on a ball at Chawton House and have Mr. and Mrs. Darcy come host it. As Ms. Lerner says, “Life is short. Why watch other people doing stuff?” She would sign up for a virtual Regency machine, I’m sure.
I’ll admit to mixed feeling about pretending to live in the Regency in general or inside a Jane Austen novel in particular.
For one thing, I like to dress up and drink tea and all, but in the end, how much does that have to do with Jane Austen and why you read her? Maybe I would get a romantic thrill from being trotted around the dance floor by a tall, silent man, all while displaying wit and cleavage. Maybe I just wouldn’t want to admit that part of that thrill was based on a scene from a novel, i.e., from someone else’s head. I am a snob about my fantasy worlds. (I like them to be my own.) And I read Jane Austen because she’s funny, not because she wore Empire dresses.
For another thing, if I was actually living in a novel, I think my adventures would go a lot like Amanda Price’s. Lost in Austen has, dare I say it?, a realistic take on living your fantasy: Pride and Prejudice addict Amanda Price finds herself inside the book, which Lizzie has vacated for modern life, and she wreaks havoc on the plot, all while trying to restore it to what she knows it should be. Kind of like a baby with a birthday cake. Kind of like an Austen fan’s nightmare. Not the same thing at all as reading the book, and having it be in your own head.
So, what do you say? Meet me in Holodeck 3 for the ball at Netherfield? Or will we apply the lessons of Jane Austen to this life? I must admit the holodeck does sound more fun. But then, doesn’t it always?
In The Divine Jane, Fran Lebowitz says, “Any artist who has that quality of timelessness has that quality because they tell the truth. Obviously, details change. . . . Her perceptions don’t date because they are correct. And they will remain that way until human beings improve themselves intrinsically; and this will not happen.”
Witness Sir Walter and Miss Elliot confronting their financial situation at the beginning of Persuasion: “. . . he had gone so far even as to say, ‘Can we retrench? does it occur to you that there is any one article in which we can retrench?’—and Elizabeth, to do her justice, had, in the first ardor of female alarm, set seriously to think what could be done, and had finally proposed these two branches of economy: to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new-furnishing the drawing-room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down to Anne, as had been the usual yearly custom.”
Oh yes, Jane knew what happens when people who have a lot have to face having less.
Do our times make us hunger for truth? Escaping the truth? Both? Lately I’ve read some interesting articles on desire for truth: truth in the bodies of models who walk the catwalk, the eroding and perhaps gone-forever truth of our photographs, the uncanny valley of avatars who look so like the humans (or monkeys) that they are not. Escapism is thriving too, of course—”reality shows,” alcohol sales, zombies, Mafia Wars, and Farmville, to name a few.
I like reading fiction because it’s easier than non-fiction. In non-fiction, you have to always be evaluating what the author says: is this true? Or does the author have some agenda? But in fiction, you just know whether it’s true: if it isn’t, something cracks, and you put the book down. Or did Jane actually teach me what is true in human relationships? This is possible. And in fiction there is of course the element of escapism: the characters seem to have so much time, and servants, and barouche-landaus. Their problems do not affect your life (except in certain modern adaptations.) The problems of non-fiction are all too depressingly real.
Do you read Jane Austen to find truth or to escape reality? Or both?
Photo credit: ©2009 Heather Dever. All rights reserved.