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Still jonesing for Jane

There's more to author's enduring appeal than meets the eye

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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has just turned 200, and Janeites everywhere are celebrating, decorously. Over its two centuries, the story of spirited Elizabeth Bennet and difficult Mr. Darcy has grown from a literary classic into a pop culture phenomenon.

The novel's original title was First Impressions, which Austen felt could be misleading. And certainly, Austen's fame has brought with it certain misconceptions. In honour of P&P's anniversary, let's clear a few up.

MISCONCEPTION 1: JANE AUSTEN WRITES ROMANCES

Yes, in Pride and Prejudice the heroine gets her man and her wedding. But when a writer for the feminist blog Jezebel recently suggested that Austen was "kinda just highbrow Twilight," the Janeite backlash was immediate -- and withering.

Pride and Prejudice may share a basic plot template with happily-ever-after Harlequin romances and Hollywood rom-coms (meeting, misunderstanding, marriage), but the tone is way different. With Austen's crisp, unsentimental streak and ironic eye for human weakness, she's often more com than rom.

Austen could also be unflinching about the relationship between marriage and money. Her ideal marriage is based on mutual respect and affection, but it's underpinned by some bracing pragmatism. W.H. Auden penned a poem in which he professed to be shocked by the way she revealed "so frankly and with such sobriety/ The economic basis of society."

 

MISCONCEPTION 2: JANE IS OLD-FASHIONED

Sure, Ms. Austen's characters are often driving curricles and wearing pelisses and playing piquet. (Whatever that is.) But they're also struggling with recognizable problems, which is why Austen's novels have held up to so many interpretations and updates.

In movies and books, Pride and Prejudice has survived zany supernatural mashups (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Mr. Darcy, Vampyre), Bollywood musical treatment (Bride and Prejudice), an amateur-sleuthing subplot (Death Comes to Pemberley) and relocations to a Mormon university in Utah (Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy), the American South (Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits) and the Olympic curling trials (Pride, Prejudice, and Curling Rocks). There's also a 2012 comic novel called Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy's Dreadful Secret, and we can't begin to imagine what that's about.

Austen even does well on the Interweb. Take the latest pop culture take on P&P, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. In this series of YouTube video blogs -- supported by social media spinoffs on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter -- Lizzie is a grad student, living at home and snowed under by college debt, and Mr. Darcy is the killingly cool CEO of Pemberley Digital. (Lizzie refers to him as "snobby Mr. Douchey.") Lydia, Elizabeth's tearaway sister, is a tragic little party girl ("Heeelllooo INTERNET! -- Whaaaat! Twitter bitches!").

Clearly, these Millennial-style Bennet girls have a different sense of decorum from their 19th-century models. But their worries are the same -- men, money and mothers, with a little moral development slipped in -- and the kids seem to be responding.

 

MISCONCEPTION 3: JANE IS A PRUDE

D.H. Lawrence thought Austen "an old maid," and a recent "Wild and Wanton" edition of Pride and Prejudice felt it necessary to augment the original novel with brand-new naughty bits conveniently highlighted in bold print. As the back cover elegantly summed it up: "Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy FINALLY DO IT!"

It's insulting to assume that Austen didn't know about sex: She was a spinster, not a ninny. There's loads of submerged sexual tension in Pride and Prejudice. It's just that the characters don't feel compelled to talk about it all the time. Which is unusual these days and, really, kind of hot.

 

MISCONCEPTION 4: JANE HAS ALWAYS BEEN FAMOUS

Maybe it has something to do with that iconic moment when Colin Firth emerged from the lake in a dripping-wet cambric shirt in the wildly popular 1995 BBC television adaptation, but modern audiences tend to take Jane Austen's fame for granted. After all, she seems to have the literary canon locked down, and she's all over pop culture. She's even got a line on merchandising, from Jane Austen cookbooks to Jane Austen bus tours to Jane Austen tote bags.

But Austen sold modestly during her lifetime, and her posthumous reputation fluctuated. The full-blooded Romantics thought her wan, while the multi-volume Victorians found her narrow. But the early 20th-century moderns liked her style. Meanwhile, a recent surge from Masterpiece Theatre, Hollywood and Keira Knightley (as perhaps the most extravagantly beautiful Elizabeth Bennet ever) seems to have enshrined her enduring stories.

So happy birthday, P&P. We plan on holding a ball in your honour.

alison.gillmor @freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 E1

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