What do regency romances and horror movies have in common? More then you might think, judging by the latest bizarre development in the cult of Austenby Claire Harman / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Just when you thought that Austen-mania might have run its course—when the poster of Colin Firth was starting to look a little curled and faded—along comes a new incarnation for the brand. Time-travelling in and out of Austen was last year’s hit (there were several novels as well the television drama Lost in Austen); but the oddest manifestation is Austen horror, in the form of two forthcoming books, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Jane Bites Back (in which Austen becomes a vampire); there is also a film in development at Elton John’s Rocket Pictures called Pride and Predator, in which the 1987 cult monster guns for the Bennets of Meryton.
If, as promised in Jane Bites Back, the author “sets out to avenge herself on everyone who has exploited her name and books,” she will have her work cut out. Known as much today through film and television adaptations as through the novels themselves, Austen is one of the most used and abused signifiers in our culture, turning up almost randomly across the media. Witness, for example, one PR’s description of the television show Survivor as “Jane Austen with monitor lizards.”
This global recognition is especially surprising given the slow and uncertain beginnings of her fame. For most of her lifetime, Austen was merely an aspiring novelist; her books stacked up on the shelf in manuscript and only began to be published—anonymously—in the last six years of her life. On publication, they found a small audience, but their success faded so quickly after her death in 1817 that all her titles were eventually remaindered or pulped. Her work had reappeared by the mid-19th century, but it was only with the publication in 1870 of her nephew’s Memoir of Jane Austen that she gained anything like mass recognition.
By the early 20th century, Austen’s status as a popular classic was secure. What is far harder to account for, however, is the second—and much more powerful—wave of Austenolatry of the past 15 years. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since the BBC’s mega-hit adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, we have been exposed to a blitz of films and spin-off books, of websites and blogs. Part of this can be explained by Austen’s work being so much in the public eye at a significant moment technologically. But part of it reflects social changes—and, in particular, changes in that very Austenian concept, sensibility.
More than any other author, Austen inspired the 1990s boom in chick-lit and romantic comedies. This genre emerged from and fed a new class of consumers: young, unmarried women whose delayed search for a permanent mate made the whole process seem urgent, even desperate. The hugely successful Bridget Jones books didn’t just give this demographic a name—singletons—but freely and openly used Austen as a model. And the association of Austen with hit books and films like Bridget Jones or Sex and the City in turn led to her novels being read as guides to Finding Mr Right—and read so literally that they spawned books like Jane Austen’s Guide to Romance and Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating.
Part of what makes Austen so limitlessly adaptable is the sense that her streamlined, untopical novels inhabit a timeless zone. Yet people also seem to feel a personal connection with, even love for, the author. And the intensity of fans’ feelings is only sharpened by the fact that there’s something not-quite-satisfying about Austen’s oeuvre: the withheld eroticism of her romances, the existence of just six slim novels.
It’s the conjunction of this hunger with changes in how we consume that has done most to keep Austen so prominent in the culture. For decades, Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice was not only the only adaptation of the novel, but of any Austen novel, and it seemed totally sufficient. Today, though, there is a new tolerance for multiplication of treatments in the media. No number of versions of a book, adaptations of a subject or retellings of a popular story is too many.
And the technological advances that allow people to see films over and over again on their televisions, computers and phones have fostered a different way of watching: a kind of super-familiarity (rather than over-familiarity) to do with micro-knowledge, special features and internet fandom. You can buy a favourite movie on DVD almost as soon as it has left the theatres, only to find that you are just about ready for the next version—or for the latest mash-up of clips and trailers on YouTube.
In a way, vampires and zombies are a logical next step—for Austen herself seems to be truly among the undead and the unkillable. Though one wonders what kind of fame it is that spawns Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the subtitle of which is “The Classic Regency Romance—now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” The author has, he tells us, lifted about 85 per cent of his word count from the novel, but says he was “bored to tears” by Austen at high school. Although, judging by its opening sentence, there’s every risk of this with his version: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” With lines like that, can an undead Dickens be far away?