Anniversaries and explanations
January 28 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and predictably the occasion generated a wealth of commentary on the global Austen craze and its money-making spinoffs. (I’m not immune to the impulse to cash in; there’s a reason my book on Jane Austen fans is coming out in 2013.) We can expect more of this kind of thing as we trot through a round of Austen bicentenaries in the next few years – all her novels were published between 1811 and 1817, the year she died at forty-one. This time around, we mostly got stories about all the P&P-related stuff that's out there -- the movies, the TV shows, the sequels, the merchandise – and bullet-point lists of life lessons culled from P&P. I’ve noticed that these supposedly Austen-inspired life lessons always happen to coincide with the commentator’s own political views, whether left-wing feminist or right-wing conservative. And I’m still waiting for someone to include that favorite of grandmothers everywhere: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich boy as a poor boy.”
For this anniversary, although everyone mentioned the BBC’s1995 Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Pride and Prejudice, which turned Austen into a global brand with a passionate internet following, we were largely spared the onslaught of Big Explanations For Why We Still Love Jane Austen. But the breathing space won’t last. Sometime soon – perhaps when we mark Mansfield Park’s two hundredth birthday next year, or Emma’s the year after – the cultural critics will re-emerge from their burrows. They will tell us once again that Austen remains popular because of her strong heroines, her happy endings, or her incisive satire. They’ll opine that Austen’s world provides a peaceful refuge from 24-7 bad news – or, alternatively, that the precariousness of her heroines’ economic position speaks to our recession-plagued times. They’ll mock Austen fans for dressing up in bonnets and Empire-line dresses, or praise them for valuing female-centered domestic dramas over male-dominated stories of war and politics. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find this stuff deeply tiresome. None of the punditry is wrong, exactly, but every worthy generalization tempts me to respond, “Yes, but. . .” Partly, it’s that the broad-brush explanations are too broad; they can’t pinpoint what makes these books special. After all, many novels, even many nineteenth-century novels, feature strong heroines, happy endings, cutting wit, and time-tested wisdom, but no one is lining up to commemorate the bicentenaries of works by Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, or Sir Walter Scott. More fundamentally, however, no intellectual theorizing can quite explain the passionate engagement that Austen’s work, and especially her most famous book, inspires. Encountering the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, whether on the page or the screen, is often what turns ordinary folk into obsessed Janeites. “Light & bright & sparkling,” as Austen herself described it, P&P is the novel we recommend first to people who’ve never read her before. Why do we love it so? No explanation quite satisfies, just as no words can quite explain the magic in that first glance across a crowded room. Falling in love with a book is rather like falling in love with a person: self-explanatory to those directly involved, and inexplicable to everyone else. Perhaps the strangest thing about our love for Pride and Prejudice is how protean the familiar classic can seem when filtered through the varied personalities and life experiences of its readers, even those united by a shared ability to recite the best lines from memory. As I learned while researching Among the Janeites, my book about Austen fans, the more you talk to Janeites, the more distinctive our responses seem, and the less plausible the monolithic Big Explanations become. I met a Canadian speech pathologist who thinks Mr. Darcy’s reserve is a symptom of Asperger syndrome, and a crossword-loving Florida lawyer who believes subtextual clues point to a dark, threatening Darcy who’s slept with Elizabeth’s sister. I spoke to a homeschooled evangelical Baptist who believes Austen’s virtuous heroines embody Biblical values, and to a forthright Texan who turned her Colin Firth fantasies into a top-selling bodice-ripper about the exceedingly happy sex life of Elizabeth and Darcy. Writers have set updated versions of P&P among Jewish retirees in Florida, evangelical Christians in Texas, students in a ritzy Los Angeles private high school and, in the current hit web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, technology entrepreneurs in California. Mr. Darcy the wealthy British landowner has morphed into every imaginable variety of alpha male – judge, CEO, rock star, vampire – retaining only his ability to capture Elizabeth’s affections and, in the racier versions, satisfy her sexual needs. All these reimaginings and reinterpretations tell us as much about ourselves as about Austen’s masterpiece, of course; in Austen’s slippery, ironic sentences, readers tend to find a reflection of their own attitudes and concerns, or a fulfillment of their own fantasies. But I think the rich diversity of responses to Pride and Prejudice also reflects something real about Austen – the depth and complexity of her work. Great literature is great precisely because it can’t be reduced to a tidy list of bullet points that every reader can agree upon. The Big Explanations that we’re tempted to reach for as each notable anniversary rolls around end up oversimplifying both the novels and the readers who have loved them, in their own irreducibly individual ways, for two centuries. And counting.