Pitchforks, Jane Austen and Me
Warning: the following material contains commentary that might offend literary purists and those who lack a sense of humour.
The recent controversy swirling around my new book Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts has come as a bit of a surprise to me, particularly after the tremendous success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Having written my version in the same spirit (minus the zombies), I assumed the reception would be, for the most part, along similar lines. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ended up on the bestseller list and is being made into a film, so a lot of people obviously enjoyed what was clearly intended to be an outlandish parody of a classic novel.
However, with Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts (which is likewise meant to be a parody, albeit a sexual one), a number of people appear to have misplaced their sense of humor. If they ever had one, that is.
I quickly discovered that some journalists, along with a pitchfork-wielding mob of so-called literary purists and Jane-ites, were vilifying both my book (and me as its author) before it had even come back from the printer. It seems odd that there was all this frothing at the mouth from individuals who hadn’t even seen a copy of the book, yet had plenty to say about its contents. You would think I’d penned a how-to guide advocating the cannibalism of young children, judging from the vitriol being spewed in my direction.
There appears to be this presumption by the pitchfork coalition that Jane Austen was some prim and proper spinster who wouldn’t have dared to be so impolitic as to address sexual matters in her novels. Therefore who was I, a lowly writer, to tamper with such purity? I wonder if these hecklers from the peanut gallery have even read the original Pride and Prejudice, since it alludes to matters most impolitic, indeed. Considering the time in which Jane Austen wrote and the fact that she was woman writing in what was a man’s profession, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there was only so far she could go with her characters. I’m certain if she were alive today, we’d see a very different Pride and Prejudice.
Although Austen’s novels dealt for the most part with matters of the heart, she was also a keen satirist and social commenter. Pride and Prejudice was, in many people’s opinion, the wittiest and most satirical works of her career. Writers such as myself have simply carried on in the spirit of Jane Austen, albeit taking a few artistic liberties. Indeed, there’s a long-standing tradition of authors taking pre-existing works and creating something new from them. We see it all the time. Yet for some reason when this is done with Jane Austen, the practice is suddenly denigrated to the ranks of amateur “fan fiction” or else labeled a “rip-off.” Why is that? Why do the re-imaginings of Austen’s works push so many buttons with these “literary purists” – especially re-imaginings that don’t follow the traditional romance route? And why the vitriol, some of which is not very gentlemanly or ladylike? If it’s the sexual content that’s getting these naysayers’ knickers in a twist, perhaps said naysayers should pay closer attention to the original Pride and Prejudice and ask themselves exactly what a fifteen-year-old girl (Lydia Bennet) was doing with Mr. Wickham (a man in full adulthood) or, for that matter, what he was doing with her predecessor, the very young Georgiana Darcy. I doubt Jane Austen intended for us to believe they occupied themselves in games of whist after running away together, since a popular card game wasn’t likely to cause scandal or land disrepute on these young ladies. Whether Austen fleshed out the unsavory details is irrelevant. As stated previously, it was unlikely she would have allowed herself to or, for that matter, been allowed to when the book was written – not unless she was willing to go “underground” with her novel.
Taking pre-existing works and having a bit of fun with them is something many contemporary writers do, just as it was for writers from the past. The fact that some of us have chosen to do so with Pride and Prejudice merely corroborates the longstanding popularity of the novel and the rich fodder it contains. Jane Austen’s book is an amusing satire full of characters both romantic and ridiculous. Authors such as myself have been inspired by what Austen gave us and decided to take it in a new direction.
Perhaps the members of the pitchfork brigade need to pull that stick out of their backsides and get a sense of humor. After all, Jane Austen had one!
Postscript: The text of this article first appeared in similar form as “Pride and Prejudice and Pitchforks” in the Huffington Post. Interestingly, the vitriol continued even there, so much so, in fact, that Post moderators were forced to remove many of the readers’ comments. due to their inappropriate nature and language. I doubt that Jane Austen would have approved such behaviour! It only reinforces my “peanut gallery” argument about those individuals who have neither read my book (nor, for that matter, anything I’ve written!). Readers are perfectly free to love or hate Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts (just as they are perfectly free to love or hate Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), but at least read the books before passing off what claims to be “critical commentary.”
In closing, I’m pleased to say that Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts was selected by the Jane Austen Society of North America (Greater New York region) to be a raffle prize at their Jane Austen conference this past spring. Evidently it was a pitchfork-free zone!
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