Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.
I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.
As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.
But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.
I admit that I do like most of the dewy-eyed romantic flicks inspired by Austen’s work. The best of them do capture much of Austen’s irreverent humor. The 2005 movie version of “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, serves up a marvelous portrayal of the bumbling, brown-nosing Mr. Collins, and one of my favorite scenes is of Lizzy and her father mercilessly skewering the parson at the dinner table. (On the other hand, that movie’s portrayal of Darcy as a wounded, sensitive Brontë-type hero would have Austen spinning in her grave.)
Mr. Collins’ character fares no better in the famed 1995 BBC version of “P&P,” and Alison Steadman’s Mrs. Bennett is the shrill, stupid creature of Austen’s novels. She’s so annoying she almost put me off watching the series all the way through.
But, ironically, I find that some of the works that come closest to Austen in spirit are those that depart from her stories. In one telling scene in “Lost in Austen,” which turns P&P on its head by injecting a modern heroine into the story, Amanda Price tells Darcy he would benefit from having an occupation of some sort. “You have no function, Mr. Darcy, no purpose.”
“What a disgusting idea,” he replies with a smug half-smile. “That is the raison d’etre of society; we must be seen to be unoccupied.”
Then there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which does give the bored aristocracy something to do—train as ninjas so they can fight off the zombies infesting the countryside.
Lord only knows what Austen would think of these reinventions of her work, but the very irreverence of them pays homage to her feisty spirit.