'Pride' and passion

A new crop of writers and filmmakers wonders, "What Would Jane Do?"
Monday, July 11, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

WHEN A FAKE sequel to the immensely popular "Don Quixote" surfaced in the early 1600s, Miguel de Cervantes countered with an authentic one. At the end, he killed off his celebrated hero, significantly stifling other renegade stylings.

If Jane Austen had ended her tirelessly charming 1813 novel "Pride and Prejudice" with a funeral instead of a wedding, we might have been spared this:

"And sitting shoulder to shoulder with her new husband in the bright, very public daylight, she was visited with an unshakable, if indecorous recollection. As much as she endeavored (and mightily she did endeavor), Elizabeth could not replace the image from her mind of her husband's body. Naked as God made him."

It has been a decade since the BBC and A&E teamed up for a lavish television miniseries that enchanted the faithful, enflamed the uninitiated and stoked the appetite for "Pride and Prejudice" (not to mention for actor Colin Firth, who smoldered peerlessly as Mr. Darcy).

This fall, Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen star in the first major film adaptation of the classic novel since an imperfect 1940 version. Fans writing in online forums have already parsed every second of the trailer ("And the proposal scene, in the rain?!?! Can we say, cliche?").

As popular as ever, "Pride and Prejudice" has been improvised and updated, used and abused more than any other Austen work, and perhaps more than any other work of literature,

"It's one part great story, and another part marketing opportunity," says Katherine Carlson, an associate editor at Thomas Dunne Books, which just published the paperback of "Vanity and Vexation," a modernized version that swaps the sexes of the main characters. "The Austen community is massive, and they're voracious."

"Pride and Prejudice" revolves around the matrimonial prospects of the five Bennet sisters living comfortably in a provincial village in Regency England. Their father's estate will be inherited by a male cousin after his death, so they must marry well. When Elizabeth Bennet meets the rich Mr. Darcy, he is at first contemptuous of her embarrassing family and lower social standing. Her wit and effervescence win him over, but she is put off by his pride and some alleged misdeeds.

After he rescues her younger sister from a scandal -- and after Elizabeth sees Pemberley, his gorgeous country estate -- she overcomes her prejudice and falls in love with him.

The novel is at once a comedy of manners and a social satire skewering traditional class and gender roles. Its penetrating insight into human nature rivals that of Shakespeare, and "Pride and Prejudice" has, says Paula Marantz Cohen, a Morristown native and author of "Jane Austen in Boca," "the best romantic plot of all time."

It is all the more astonishing considering that Austen was a country rector's daughter who received little formal education (though she read voraciously) and who never married before her death at 41.

"It took me until I was about 30 to understand why Jane Austen was a great writer and not just a writer of romance novels," says Rachel Pastan, whose 2004 take on Austen, "This Side of Married," is set in suburban Philadelphia. "She is a great writer partly because her profile is so elegant and partly because her insight into characters is so extraordinary and partly because her dissection of society is so incisive."

Certainly, fairy tales, classical myths and Biblical stories have been retold in various guises for centuries. "Pride and Prejudice" itself incorporates elements of the Cinderella story and the love dynamic of the Beauty and the Beast.

"Probably a lot of people like the idea of the girl taming the kind-of-noble savage," says Natalie Tyler, an English professor at Ohio State who wrote the down-to-earth guide "The Friendly Jane Austen."

"Darcy is presented in the beginning as a Byronic guy, kind of cold, who sneers at people who are having fun. ... To have Lizzy really help to humanize him shows the power of woman to turn a cold man hot."

While some would-be Austens borrow only the bones of the book, others take the novel as a blueprint, slavishly recreating her structure and cribbing unapologetically from her prose.

"She is, as Virginia Woolf famously commented, the best writer who it is most difficult to catch in the act of being great, which might inspire lesser talents to try to imitate her," Tyler says.

"Because her characters have so many universal and unchanging tendencies, it's easy to place her in Bollywood, Boca Raton, Beverly Hills, and other places."

An often-told tale

In "Bridget Jones's Diary," the most popular modernization, Helen Fielding streamlined the plot and turned self-sufficient Elizabeth into a hapless but lovable wreck who falls under the spell of a scoundrel before ultimately landing a lawyer named ... Mark Darcy.

Paula Marantz Cohen recast the Bennet sisters as elderly Jewish widows in a Florida retirement community. Retired librarian Flo mocks and then mates with Stan, a cranky professor emeritus who specializes in ... Jane Austen.

In Kate Fenton's "Vanity and Vexation," Elizabeth becomes Llew, a divorced novelist in a sleepy Yorkshire village, who locks horns with intimidating filmmaker Mary Dance, in town to shoot an adaptation of ... "Pride and Prejudice."

Other recent retellings include the film "Bride and Prejudice," a Bollywood translation that pits a beautiful Indian girl against an American blueblood, and a 2003 movie called "Pride and Prejudice," a frothy update with Mormon twentysomethings.

At least a dozen more "sequels" to the novel have been published over the years, some following Elizabeth and Darcy -- including the bodice-ripper quoted earlier -- and others focusing on lesser characters from the novel.

There is a popular self-published series that considers the courtship from Darcy's point-of-view, and a new mystery series that stars the newlyweds as period sleuths -- picture Nick and Nora Charles of "The Thin Man" in breeches and bonnets. A parody called "Pride and Promiscuity" restores long-lost sex scenes. And then there is a flood of fiction, X-rated and otherwise, written by fans and posted on various Austen-related Web sites.

Cohen and Rachel Pastan, both of whom live in Philadelphia, say they borrowed liberally from "Pride and Prejudice" because they struggle with plot and structure, respectively.

Film producer Jason Faller considered Austen and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a match made in heaven. "I was looking at the Mormon audience and we noticed certain things about them that were, um, I don't know how to phrase it -- they had certain moral sentiments that don't exist anywhere anymore, but that fit into Regency England."

But Cohen, an English professor at Drexel University, says the Jewish pensioners who stand in for the Bennet sisters also reflects a closed, homogenous society, just like the book's narrow slice of Regency England.

"It is a social critique of the retirement community of a world that I know very well, that I think is funny and touching and ridiculous and all the things Jane Austen talked about in her world."

The writers clearly have fun drawing the analogues to specific characters and situations in the book. Mr. Collins, a stupid, simpering clergyman who proposes to Elizabeth in the original, makes an artful transition to a tedious environmentalist who offers to impregnate a childless Isabel in "This Side of Married."

In her book, Pastan also dispatched two of the Bennet sisters and had to reconsider the scandal involving youngest sister Lydia, whom Austen has eloping with an unsuitable suitor. Today, that behavior is not the reputation-killer -- Britney Spears aside -- it once was.

Cohen and Pastan have created updated works that are entertaining on their own merits and don't require a refresher course in the 19th Century Novel. But some Austen fans will slog through any adaptation just for the thrill of identifying characters in their modern dress and detecting allusions to the original.

On the other hand, Joan Klingel Ray, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, says she doesn't make an effort to read other writers' attempts.

"Jane Austen is such a deep and insightful writer that I just reread Jane Austen multiple times. Go back and read 'Pride and Prejudice' again and again and again," she says.

The endless stream of sequels that imagine life after the altar, or consider the events of the novel from other points of view, are more uneven than the modernizations, mostly because they try to imitate Austen's luminous prose and fall far short. The unpublished and self-published post their writings on Web sites like www.pemberley.com, which gets about 10 million hits a month and boasts about 2,000 active members.

Olivia Vozza, 51, of Little Ferry, had always been an Austen admirer, but the 1995 adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" (fans call it P&P2) made her a diehard. Then she found fellow Janeites on the Internet.

"P&P2 kind of liberated a lot of people," she says. "When I watched P&P2, it was just not satisfying. You got so involved in them for four hours, and then they just leave you hanging, and you just can't bear that hanging feeling. I needed something more, because it become so real."

"You have delighted us long enough," Mr. Bennet informs his wretchedly untalented daughter Mary in the original. Ten years after the onset of Austen-mania, and nearly 200 years after the publication of "Pride and Prejudice," her sisterhood is as strong as ever.

"I think there is so much to say about Jane Austen and so much to go around," Tyler says. "I think Jane Austen, like Shakespeare and Dickens, is going to keep writers endlessly busy, literally forever." And the Austen name will keep a specific segment of the population -- women -- buying.

Cohen says she came up with the title "Jane Austen in Boca" not thinking the connection would be a coup. Her editors initially considered changing it, but now they consider the title one reason for its success.

Cohen is a little embarrassed to admit she borrowed from Austen's more melancholy "Persuasion" for her upcoming book, a novel about college admissions.

She originally planned to call it "Love, Death and the SATs." Her publisher changed it to "Jane Austen in Scarsdale."

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