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Book Review: Flirting With Pride & Prejudice

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Next week, the latest film version of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice will open. It stars Kiera Knightley, Matthew McFadden, Donald Sutherland, and Judi Dench. While the legions of fans of the 1995 BBC miniseries may well wonder why anyone would have bothered with a new version, it is nonetheless an appropriate opportunity to reflect upon what many call the “original chick-lit masterpiece.” After all, in addition to this latest film, Austen’s book was updated for contemporary international audiences by last year’s Bride and Prejudice, and it served as the template for Bridget Jones’ Diary. Austen isn’t just another long dead author whose works are in the public domain; as one article recently put it, Austen is a brand.

The new book Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, edited by Jennifer Crusie, offers a number of perspectives on Austen’s timeless classic. Crusie herself is a New York Times bestselling author whose novels include Crazy for You, Faking It, Fast Women and Welcome to Temptation (moreover, she’s got an MA in feminist criticism, an MFA in fiction and a Ph.D in feminist criticism and 19th century British and American literature). The authors who contributed to this collection include Karen Jay Fowler, Cheryl Sawyer, Teresa Medeiros, Joyce Millman, Mercedes Lackey, Jane Esperson, and more. It’s a light-hearted, humorous exploration of the novel’s enduring success – and our ever-mutating modern reaction to it.

In the essay “A Little Friendly Advice,” Jennifer O’Connell ponders what to do when one’s friends make bad choices in relationships (here we’re specifically focusing on Elizabeth Bennet and her friend Charlotte, who accepts Lizzy’s castoffs without much of a complaint). What do you do when your friends are making big mistakes, and you know it?

As friends, when relationships are past the point of no return, we tend to tiptoe around the subject for fear of creating problems. There’s a sort of relationship “no fly zone” that exists between friends. Our friend is making a huge decision and we’re supposed to support her, no matter what we think. We’re not expected to be the voice of reason, to rain on her parade. Sometimes what it comes down to is this: we fear losing our friend more than we fear the outcome of her mistake.

It’s a set of interesting observations that tie into an understanding of the dynamic relationship between Lizzy and Charlotte. Some of the authors offered up fictional tales, such as Melissa Senate’s “Charlotte’s Side of the Story,” in which Senate offers a modern update to the story from Charlotte’s perspective as to why “Willy Collins” wasn’t such a bad catch: “A suitable man got down on one knee, asked him to marry me, and held out a sparkling diamond ring in a lovely velvet-lined box. A man who would be an attentive, if super-annoying husband. He would be an attentive and doting father, of that I was sure. All I had to do was say yes and I would be engaged.”

One of the most entertaining articles, from my perspective at least, was Adam Roberts’ “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Critic,” which creates a dialogue between a typical romance reader and a navel-gazing literary critic. The reader complains that the critics don’t actually read the stories but just project themselves into the discussion, and focuses on two of the many thousands of treatises written on Austen: namely, Edward Said’s article “Jane Austen and Imperialism” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” The debate is neatly framed – do critics spend their time communicating love of a particular author’s work, or are they more interested with impressing themselves and others with their own cleverness? As Roberts’ fictional reader argues:

You’re alone in your bedroom giving yourself obscure and unsocial pleasures. Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl? Jane Austen and the Masturbating Critic more like!

It is at this point that Roberts then allows the reader to understand what the critics are exploring – it isn’t simply their own cleverness, but some of the surrounding social strata and structure which existed during Austen’s day. Admittedly, literary criticism sometimes veers away from plain English and manages to become incredibly dense (whether intentionally so or not). However, Roberts manages to illuminate what might be going in the background of Austen’s tales – for example, in the fact that she discusses neither slavery nor the ongoing Napoleonic wars, even though the book is populated with a number of soldiers whose sole purpose would, in fact, have been to be ready in case they were sent into battle against Napoleon.

Slavery is the turning of a human being into a possession, a thing. Austen’s novels are all of them deeply fascinated with the logic of authority, of the way one set of people assumes authority over another set: men over women, aristocrats over the middle classes, beautiful stupid girls over plainer, more thoughtful girls, and so on. These are the examples she takes, because this is the world with which she was familiar. But the principle is what is important and the principle is that these seemingly embedded hierarchies are not necessarily valid.

Needless to say, the encounter between the reader and the professor in Roberts’ fictionalized dialogue ends on a happy note.

From Jo Beverley talking about the “Gold Diggers of 1813” to Joyce Millman’s take on the tale as a new reality show or Michelle Cunnah’s exploration of how cell phones might have altered the storyline, the essays in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice are a mixed lot. Some are thoughtful, some are fanciful (Mercedes Lackey, for example, transforms Elizabeth Darcy (formerly Bennet) into a character in one of her fantasy storylines). Teresa Medeiros explores the allure of the “ever-stoic Mr. Darcy,” while Laci Diane Rich focuses on how Darcy is portrayed by Colin Firth in the 1995 miniseries – for many fans, it would appear that one primary concern about the upcoming big screen version is that it simply doesn’t have Firth in it. [Note: Meanwhile, I think it should be stated that Kiera Knightley is no Jennifer Ehle, either, but perhaps such admissions should remain unspoken].

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice is an entertaining book as it explores the ways in which Austen’s work both resonates with contemporary audiences and simultaneously stands as an artifact of its period (this is articulated well by Sarah Zettel’s essay “Times and Tenors,” in which she explores the ways in which various film versions of the book have done – or failed to do – to the storyline). From Austen as social commentary to the role of history and the veracity of various adaptations, as well as the ways in which contemporary women are still much like the protagonists of Austen’s tale, there is quite a bit of variety to be found here. Fans of the book – or fans of the films – would undoubtedly enjoy the ways in which the disparate group of authors reflected here play with the story, its characters, and its meaning.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

Wallo World

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About Bill Wallo

  • Bill,

    This post was chosen by the section editor as a BC pick of the week. Go HERE (link) to find out why. Put a graphic button on your page.

    And thank you
    – Temple