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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

200 years of Pride and Prejudice

by Jamie Lutton


The 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice is upon us. This book is considered the greatest novel ever written in English by a woman.
       But often long before women pick this book up, they read one of the many 'shades' of this book - pulp romance fiction.

This book invented an archetype --perhaps borrowed from Cinderella -- that a poor but plucky girl, after some misadventures, would win the heart of a rich and handsome suitor. The genius of this book is that it is her characters are believable, and the misunderstandings are plausible. Her skill was to not just make the reader invest their interest in her hero and heroine, but that her dozens of minor characters were all interesting, eccentric and sometimes hilarious, drawn in deadly thumbnail sketches. The effect this book, and all of her books, had on twentieth century writers of popular fiction is incalculable. Her works became the  'Bible' of all romance novel authors, and every line has been stolen and rewritten by slavish imitators.
     .
.I do not pretend to a great enough knowledge on how Austen influenced main stream authors in the main; except you can see her influence on Dickens.
 
I can however, reference modern forms that endlessly imitate Austen. There  is whole huge publishing industry devoted to churning out books that vaguely  resemble Pride and Prejudice and Austen's other books.
   
This book alone has been copied in one way or another by thousands of authors of  books.
   
There are hundreds of pulp writers of 'Regency Romances' that began to sprout up in the 1960's, an industry that is still churning them out today. There is the distant cousin, the Harlequin romance, which is an even larger enterprise; teeming thousands of titles have been printed. 
   
Lastly, some modern, much more serious writers consciously took her fable and turned it on its head as in the novels of Fay Weldon or Joyce Carol Oates. The DNA of this novel  is in many, many books.
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When I was a bored young teen dropout, at age 14, long before I discovered Pride and Prejudice, I picked up and read bad 'regency romances' I bought at the local paperback shack for seventy five cents, then passed on to my mother. They were our guilty pleasures we shared, as these books were mostly vapid, terribly written with stiff wooden dialog. But they nearly universally were set in the early Regency.  (We were both speed readers, and my mother was pleased to see me reading instead of raising heck in some fashion.)
      
This period appeals  to cheap novelists as upper-class women had  more freedom before the Victorian era, wore clothing that was lighter and easier to move about in, and the upper class men were not yet caught up in middle-class morality, (that Shaw mocks in his play Pygmalion). The men and women of that class frequently obsessed with their clothes, drank too much, and gambled. The men frequently wenched, fought duels, prize fights, etc, Generally both sexes carried on openly in a way their children and grandchildren hid, in the prim Victorian era. .
    
There is the background of the English wars against Napoleon, and the recent French Revolution and the horrors of the Terror. This was a great background for a 'good guy' or 'bad guy made good' by the infrequence of endless, endless plucky heroines.

In Austen's actual novel Pride and Prejudice there is little mention of these  wars, except for the soldiers who were stationed nearby and a terrible distraction to the younger sisters in the books.

The Regency romances  I read, all the hundreds of them all sort of run together, except for the novels of the mid 20th century English writer. Georgette Heyer.
    
Hers stand out; and in fact may have created the market for the floodgate of fluff that followed her.
    
This author of at least 37 of these yarns, she wrote them from the late 1920's to the 1970's.  She had the time and money to research each of them so that they exactly fit the time they were written, down to details of clothes, swearing habits, historical events, and the minutiae of what young women could and could not get away with.

As she wrote them,through time, her style changed. She did not necessarily get better, as all of her books are similar in quality,  but her characters had less improbable adventures, and became more like Austen's, being drawing room comedies instead of intrigues involving cross dressing, kidnapping and swordplay. But they all focus on romance between a plucky heroine and a rich hero.  I have not found any other romance writer who could approach Austen with her subtlety, wit and understatement.

It is the humor that so many of these hack writers lack. That, and Heyer's men are appealing, and three dimensional.

Heyer is so good that hundreds of  writers have stolen from her directly, with wholesale theft of plots, themes and writing style.  She created the market for the endless romance novel market.  But the reading of romance is circular; in the end, all roads lead to Jane Austen's masterpieces.

Why read Jane Austen? Why read Pride and Prejudice?  Well, she is the real thing. She writes about her own time, not an an imagined past as Georgette Heyer does (and all the others).

No research can match the eyes of this writer, who fictionalized the truths she saw around her. When reading about her  world, the astute reader will realize that she has been stolen from for plot, atmosphere and circumstance, without developing the reality she created.

The endless Harlequin or Regency romances feature poor but plucky girls and clueless, grumpy, but always rich men, as a shadow of Darcy's wealth and Elizabeth's wit.  But here is Austen's genius.

Elizabeth the heroine is shown in her home, with her reckless little  sisters, her father and her impossible mother. You see her going about her day.

In the first paragraph of this novel, the grasping necessity of marriage is brought up, that any well off young man 'was seen as the rightful property of one or the other of their daughters'   You can see the forces that shaped Elizabeth's intelligence, her wit, and her bravery.  Too often the heroines of other novels, even Heyer's, you don't see where the young girl comes from. Not enough effort is made to create a world, with pages of background and description.And what made Darcy Darcy is evident by his friends,  how people around him treat him, his snobbishness, his isolation, and his need to protect his little sister.  He seems plausible and real.

The romance novelists who slavishly copy Austen, even those who make a great effort, forgo the background to the characters, and do not fill them out enough..

There is a section in The Republic by Plato when Socrates talks about what is real and what is a shadow.  He does this in this dialogue by talking about shadows in an imaginary cave that look real, but are but shadows of real things. Austen comes close to being real, a mirror of the real world, or how the real world should be, anyway. All her endless imitators fail as they do not capture reality.  Some writers, like Dickens, a near contemporary of hers, made their own reality, but his was the shadow of the terror of poverty from his childhood. Dickens (my opinion) keeps telling the story of his childhood in his novels, over and over.

Austen's genius came from watching her female contemporaries go about their lives, and she satirizes the byzantine negotiations for marriages for young girls. All of the girls, have  hopes for love an security, and settling for convenience, or many times not marrying at all, like Austen herself. The woman's fate, she shows, was tied to who she married, not who she was, and that this byzantine struggle mapped out what her fate would be; happy, unhappy, poor, single. Living at home the rest of her life, or with a husband who loves her and can provide for her.

This is an era before careers for women, when they had to make their way by how good a 'deal' they can strike with a man, with one's parents interfering or helping along the way..

I would recommend that everyone read Pride and Prejudice.  Male readers especially should pick this book up and try it, if only to observe the marriage desperation that is  now thankfully out of date. This desperation, played out off stage in women's conversations when women struggle for a place in a world where marriage is the only career option open for them.

This book also speaks to the intelligent and lonely among us, who wish for a soul mate when surrounded by dimmer people who do not ever get the humor of existence.

The supply of such readers is endless. They self select as they like novels, and so like the ready escape they offer from the cares of the world.

A careful reading of this world should not make anyone want to live in it, when we live in a world with so many more choice, anesthesia for childbirth, and dentists, say.

It is good idea to read 'the real thing', instead of the many imitation. To remember Plato's Cave again, the problem with modern readers is that many are satisfied with the pale imitations, and do not tackle the real books.

The reader of the romance novel, who never looks up to read the fiction written then -  Pride and Prejudice (or the Jane Eyre by Bronte, which is also about the plucky girl/rich man story, albeit a darker version of that) is caught in the world of the faded zero of this time. I had read probably over a hundred bad copies of Pride and Prejudice before I read this book of Austen at 16; when I did read her I was jolted at how much better it was. It was then I began to read more critically. From reading Heyer and some the other imitators, good bad terrible first, I saw the plagiarism clearly.

This was the beginning of my critical thinking about literature.

It was about that time I started to read history, wanting to know even more about the Napoleonic Wars, the Regent, and the times that Jane Austen lived in. 

If your taste runs to light fiction, and there is nothing wrong with that, I suggest after reading Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps some of her other novels, and that if you have been reading pulp romances already, to try Georgette Heyer's novels
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Try one of her more satirical titles, like The Unknown Agax or The Tollgate. She is the best of the 'plagiarists'; and critics as respected as Jessica Mitford call her 'one of the great guilty pleasures'

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