Deborah Yaffe

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The gratifications of delayed gratification

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 25 2013 02:56AM


The wild success of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” the web series updating Pride and Prejudice to contemporary California, has gotten me thinking about the pleasures of the serial form, and about what those pleasures can tell us about Jane Austen.


In case you’ve missed this party: LBD tells Austen’s familiar story in a series of video blogs recorded by its heroine, a twenty-something communications grad student, and in ancillary Tumblr posts, Twitter feeds, spinoff vlogs and faux web sites maintained by other characters.


LBD’s enraptured fan base has persevered through nearly a year of twice-a-week episodes – this week’s finale will be #100 – waiting excitedly for each new character or plot twist. Darcy’s arrival, delayed until the sixtieth episode (“Darcy Day”), spawned a tsunami of excitement, eclipsed only by the buildup to last week’s #98 (“Dizzie Day”), when Darcy and Lizzie would, we knew, finally resolve their misunderstandings and fall into each other’s arms.

On the Republic of Pemberley, a Janeite named Jen K wrote, “Pride and Prejudice takes place over the course of a year...but it doesn't take a year to read Pride and Prejudice! I've been waiting a WHOLE YEAR for this!!!" And that, in a nutshell, is the point: Experiencing a story through a serial form is a special kind of experience, one in which anticipation plays as important a role as fulfillment.


Unlike many of the great Victorian novelists, Jane Austen didn’t originally publish her novels as serials; Austen’s first readers got to swallow her stories whole, just as we can. Nevertheless, the delayed gratification that is the hallmark of the serial form is peculiarly appropriate to Jane Austen’s stories, it seems to me. In Austen’s world, courtship is initiated by men; a woman in love can only wait and hope, offering what little encouragement propriety permits.


The surprising emotional intensity of Austen’s stories grows from this enforced waiting: think of Elinor Dashwood wondering painfully about Edward’s silence, or Anne Elliot watching Captain Wentworth’s love slowly reawakening, or Elizabeth Bennet hoping against hope that Darcy will renew his proposal.


For those of us wound up in a serial, the drawn-out intensity of the suspense, the agonized wait for the next developments, the blissful release of the happy ending – Dizzie Day! – all these elements of our experience mirror the emotional journey of an Austen heroine. In LBD's twenty-first-century world, of course, heroines are free to take more initiative, but I still think that this dovetailing of form and theme may have played a role in LBD’s runaway success.


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