Up until recently, my only experience with the work of Jane Austen was from the miniseries or movie adaptations of her work. I started with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, continued with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma and of course included the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, which I’m pretty sure is required viewing for all women. I think I’ve seen some version of all her published works at some point or another. I even dabbled in some movies about Jane Austen with Miss Austen Regrets.
But for whatever reason, I never had my usual urge to read her original works. I’m normally a stickler for reading the source material. I enjoyed the films and the stories they told, but that was enough for me. I did notice, however, that almost every other woman I knew had read Austen, which did make me feel a little self-conscious. Was I missing a rite of passage? Had I been home sick the day we covered Austen in school? I had enough of a working knowledge of Austen from the films I had seen to get by, but I was always a little disappointed in myself that I was taking the easy way out when it came to literary classics. Not disappointed enough to actually read the books, mind you, but disappointed all the same.
In the end, it was peer pressure that finally convinced me to read my first and only Austen book. The book Pride, Prejudice and Zombies had just been released and was getting a lot of attention, so I thought I’d check it out. The book took Austen’s original tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy and added new scenes about a zombie apocalypse. It was weird and creative and immediately appealed to me. But my friends who are Austen purists freaked out that this would be my first exposure to her books. They insisted that I had to read the original, without the zombies. They guilted me into it, so on a bus trip to Fenway I decided to take the plunge and managed to get through the book. It seemed as good a way as any to get through being trapped on a bus with a bunch of Red Sox fans.
Ultimately, I found it kind of confusing and was thankful that I already knew the basic story before I started. Maybe I wasn’t in the most ideal circumstances to be reading 19th Century literature – there was certainly a lot of jostling on the Mass Pike – but I found the language a challenge and the fact that characters were often referred to by several different names (like Elizabeth’s mother would sometimes call her father Mr. Bennett) confusing. It wasn’t holding my attention. Could have used the zombies.
So it’s not a huge surprise that I found Death Comes to Pemberley ultimately unsatisfying as well. I mentioned in a previous post that I had been reading this book which takes place several years after the events of Pride and Prejudice and features a murder mystery. The author manages to capture a lot of the elements that I didn’t really enjoy in Austen’s work and I thought the ultimate resolution of the murder was too far-fetched and more convoluted than it had to be. I had forgotten some plot points from Pride and Prejudice that were required to fully understand Death Comes to Pemberley. It took me a while to figure out who one character was because the author didn’t waste a lot of time on back story, assuming that most people seeking out this book were Austen fans. So much for my working knowledge. It wasn’t a bad read; I was actually semi-invested in the murder story line until it got too complicated and soapy (oh the irony, right?). I can’t determine how much of my disinterest was the attempted similarity in style to Austen or the actual execution of the story. I think ultimately Austen fans will get a lot more enjoyment out it than I will.
One Pride and Prejudice spin-off that I am enjoying is a web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The series is a video blog for a modern day version of Elizabeth Benet, a graduate student who lives at home with her two sisters (sorry Kitty and Mary – you don’t make the cut), her doting father and her mother who is obsessed with marrying off her daughters as quickly as possible. It’s a cute and quirky retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The actress who plays Lizzie is a lot of fun and the Lydia character is pretty much how I imagined her – really, really annoying. The series has just started, so Lizzie has only first met Darcy. I’m looking forward to future episodes and how they will interpret the rest of the story.
So clearly the lesson here is that when it comes to Jane Austen I should stick to more visual manifestations rather than the written word.