The Postmodern Phenomenon
It's the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's most popular novel. Here's why it still rocks.
1) Visual potential. Postmodern culture is visual, and though Jane Austen is a consummate literary stylist, her novels are superbly cinematic — P&P, especially so. It’s as if Austen had her eye on the option when she wrote: The plot is simple and easy to translate to the screen; there are sprightly protagonists and juicy character roles; the period locales are relatively simple to re-create and sumptuous to look at (i.e. well-furnished country houses, manicured lawns and bucolic walks, Empire dresses, frock coats and breeches); and there is plentiful and pithy dialogue. Given the adaptations that currently exist, we can now spend hours arguing over the relative merits of the BBC P&P (the general favorite), the problematic but, to some, irresistible, Keira Knightley version, and the 1940 Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier Hollywood treatment in which Lady de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver) is represented as a lovable old codger who is on Darcy’s side all along. (I confess — I love it!). In discussing P&P adaptations, there will always be the inevitable detour into extolling the adorableness of Colin Firth (Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC version and also Mark Darcy in the P&P update, Bridget Jones’s Diary). If Jane Austen is a brand and P&P, the best-selling product, Colin Firth is the star salesman in the franchise. Yes, he’s getting long in the tooth, but that only means he can be cast as Mr. Bennet in the next adaptation.
2) Internet fodder. The accumulation of speculation and secondary material about Jane Austen has resulted in a healthy life online. There are YouTube clips, fan blogs, twitter feeds, Facebook postings, and other manners of outreach. This seems only right. Jane Austen was into the sort of minutiae that the Internet thrives on — her canvas, “that little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which on which I work with so fine a brush,” is ideal for microscopic parsing.
3) The bridge between high and low. In a society much divided, P&P is a work that unifies. While it’s true that reading the novel requires a degree of literacy and patience that many Americans lack, watching the screen adaptations is a truly egalitarian activity. The movies bring in both the high-brow audience who normally only go to films with subtitles, and the chick flick audience, who like movies that star Mila Kunis and Gerard Butler (both of whom will surely star in the next adaptation, when Colin Firth plays Mr. Bennet). Pride and Prejudice can even dissolve boundaries between red state and blue. Is Elizabeth a feminist avant la lettre or a traditionalist with a good sense of humor? Is Darcy an elitist patriarch who needs to be toppled from his pedestal, or a conservative stalwart who brings the benighted Elizabeth into the fold? The answer remains ambiguous — which allows everyone, right-leaning and left, to be happy.
4) Good subject for critical speculation — a corollary of #3. If John Donne was the favored author for New Critics, lending himself to complicated close reading, Austen is ideal for postmodern critics, who can use her to say anything they want. Austen’s world is so circumscribed that it’s relatively easy to “go to the margins,” in postmodern parlance, and find something cool to work with. One of the most dramatic forays in this regard was the 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park that turned the novel into a pseudo-bio-pic, transforming the pallid heroine, Fanny Price, into a feminist aspiring writer, and took time out to explore the atrocities of the slave trade in the West Indies (where the patriarch, Thomas Musgrove, goes to oversee his business at a crucial juncture in the novel).
5) Good subject for updating and creative pastiche. Also in the postmodern spirit is the way Austen’s plots, and P&P in particular, have been used in books like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Death Comes to Pemberley, and my own Jane Austen in Boca. These books show how well suited Austen is for modernization — or should I say, postmodernization (another corollary of #3). I wrote Jane Austen in Boca because P&P simply cried out to be set in a Jewish retirement community in Boca Raton, Florida, the Bennet sisters transformed into elderly Jewish widows. The book (almost titled Pride and Prune Danish) practically wrote itself.
6) Book club staple. One of the reasons why P&P has skyrocketed in its sales has to do with the rise of book club culture, another postmodern phenomenon: Reading, once a solitary activity, has become a group activity. P&P happens to be the ideal book club book. It provides a non-threatening opportunity for book club members to indulge what they have really come to book club for: To complain about wayward children, difficult parents, neglectful spouses, and oddly-behaving friends, all of which are present in the novel (and thus allowing for #7 below). There is also a metonymic aspect to P&P that is very po-mo: The social interaction at Longbourn resembles the social interaction of book club; i.e., a female-dominated group which engages in mannerly, domestic chatter with an edge, and where refreshments like scones, finger sandwiches, and punch (occasionally spiked) are served. The success of The Jane Austen Book Club, which took reading Jane Austen and made it its subject, demonstrates that we are already at the meta-Jane Austen stage. Moreover, owing to the plethora of screen adaptations, lazy book club members can watch the movie (or BBC serial) and either pretend to have read the book or steer the conversation to the adorableness of Colin Firth.
7) Self-help manual. In our self-help culture, Austen can hold her own nicely. There is plenty of advice percolating through the pages of P&P, if you know how to look. It is easy enough to transmute balls and country walks into keg parties and coffee dates at Starbucks. Guidance on how to handle being snubbed or jilted is useful in any time period. But Austen’s most important lessons are larger in scope — they have to do with judgment and setting priorities. When Elizabeth Bennet visits her sick sister by traipsing through the mud, she has placed the value of caring for Jane above the state of her gown. The narrow-minded, morally stunted Miss Bingley is appalled, but Darcy, whose moral sense, despite his arrogant manners, is well-developed, begins falling in love with Elizabeth on the spot. P&P is about the importance of respecting the rules, but also about the occasional necessity of breaking them — something that all of us good-girl Jane Austen readers need to remember. Another great lesson in P&P is how not to parent. Just note everything Mrs. Bennet says and don’t say it. There’s the added benefit of knowing that no matter how annoying and embarrassing we are to our progeny, we are not as annoying and as embarrassing as she is.
8) Philosophical treatise. P&P, for all its surface delights, is also a profound book. It examines the nature of individual identity, the implications of gender roles, the tension between nature and nurture, and of course, that old chestnut: The disparity between appearance and reality. Here is where Austen and Shakespeare are akin — they both tackle large and deep subjects that can never be fully plumbed. Every age finds a place to dig in Jane Austen (the post-colonialists have done some new spade work in the margins, as noted above) but the old excavation sites are always worth revisiting.
9) Inspiration for writers. This is a difficult time for writers, and Austen can be helpful here too. In my mind’s eye, I see her slipping the pages of her manuscript under her blotter whenever someone (other than her sister) came into the drawing room. It is an inspirational image of how it is possible to write, even in the most unpropitious circumstances. One can also think about how P&P, for all its apparent ease and perfection, had to undergo extensive revision to arrive as the “light and bright and sparkling” work that now exists for posterity. We know that the novel started as an early mature (or perhaps late juvenile) work entitled First Impressions. This did not find a publisher. More than ten years later, Austen revised it into something akin to what we know and finally saw it published in 1813. For a writer, this is a helpful reminder that writing is solitary and often disappointing, that we can pick up old work, rework it, and possibly, though not assuredly, see it find readers at last. Northanger Abbey, another early work, did not get published until after Austen’s death.
10) A good read. It is a casualty of our visual culture that good books seem to be hard books. Literary modernism, which ushered in the difficult novel, also marked the beginning of movies, which put books on the defensive (much as photography did with painting). But many of us who were reared on hard books are tired. We are drawn to novels that have substance but don’t wear their difficulty on their sleeve. P&P warrants re-reading not just because it is great but because it is fun. You can curl up with a bottle of claret and a box of truffles — or a six-pack and a bag of Doritos —and read it for nothing other than simple, unadulterated pleasure. • 28 December 2012
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James.