Response to The Bright Old Oak

The Bright Old Oak wrote on July 18 about Good classics gone bad: the erotic twist one can live without. The title gives the author’s stance in a nutshell. I wanted to give a more considered response than is possible in a comments box.

I have no doubt the Total E-Bound Publishing version of Pride and Prejudice, co-authored by Amy Armstrong, will be every bit as dire in its way as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with horrific input from Seth Grahame-Smith. I had the displeasure of reading it once. I don’t object to mash-ups on principle, but it’s a pitiful embarrassment for the co-authors. In this case, Jane Austen is a brilliant, witty, allusive writer and the co-authors are not.

The Bright Old Oak poses the question of whether it’s right to sex up literary classics.  There are certainly literary classics from the Georgian period which take great delight in a bit of rumpy-pumpy. Tom JonesFanny Hill, and Roderick Random spring fully erect to mind – picaresque novels that embody the spirit of a rumbustious age. The fires were still burning high in the Regency, contained in rather more elegant fireplaces. Henry Fielding, John Cleland, and Tobias Smollett would have marvelled at the restraint. Had they known of the long night of Victorian prudery, they would have been in despair.

Jane Austen is every bit as satirical as the Georgian writers. Any one doubting this should read her juvenilia, particularly Love and Freindship (sic), in which she gleefully parodies the conventions of the romantic novel. Austen wields a wicked pen, perfectly expressed in the opening line of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Beneath the wit lies a sober recognition of the economic consequences of spinsterhood. Mrs Bennet may be portrayed as a comic monster, but most mothers in her position would want their daughters to get married as richly and quickly as possible.

So beneath the elegant restraint of Austen’s writing lies the same bubbling cauldron of sexual desire and economic reality. Are we to believe that Darcy and Elizabeth will live as brother and sister, or that the primary purpose of marriage is not to produce heirs who will inherit the family estate?

My answer to Bright Old Oak’s question is yes, I think it’s fine to sex up literary classics because they deal with life in all its messy complications. The caveat is, can it be done well? Not very often, unfortunately. Also unfortunate is the corollary – classic literature is often neutered to remove sexual content – a process made infamous by Thomas Bowdler. More honest to ban books. If we shouldn’t mess with classic literature, then that includes censorship as much as adding new material or writing alternative versions of the text.

All or nothing. Either keep literary classics  pristine or let them get down and dirty in popular culture. If those in power can censor literature, then the likes of Amy Armstrong, Seth Grahame-Smith should be able to add sex and zombies to Pride and Prejudice. I’m on the side of an evolving literature, even when it takes readers into realms the authors never considered. The best defence against crap is ridicule, but genuinely innovative re-interpretations are the life-blood of an evolving imagination.

My thanks to The Bright Old Oak for provoking this divagation. Please visit the blog.

6 thoughts on “Response to The Bright Old Oak

  1. Interesting post, and I enjoyed the link to the blog (also agree with yeltnuh – “spring fully erect” is classic!). Mashups are a fraught question. When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, I suppressed my, well, prejudice against mining the classics and reducing them to genre fiction, and came to think it was a bit of a hoot, really. (I haven’t read it but I’ll trust your dislike of it.) And then there was the TV series Lost in Austen, in which Elizabeth entered a portal and found herself in the middle of present-day London. I loved it! I agree with your appreciation of “an evolving literature”. The classics should be fair game for re-interpretation, even if most mashups are cringe-worthy. We don’t have to read them, and they may just introduce new readers to the originals.

    • Lost in Austen was brilliant. I should have thought to mention it in the post, since I wrote a review when it came out: Lost in Austen. Unfortunately, whoever uploaded the clip I used has closed their account, so it’s disappeared into the aether. I’ll try to find another one.

  2. Thank you for the reblogging and more importantly for the article discussing the topic I have brought up. That was an interesting read.
    I also don’t mind a bit of rewriting, but it is the way this is done (as you say) that will turn this experiment into a failure (at least to academics and lovers of novels & literature).

    The thing is: would I be in favour of a sexual/erotic decoding of Jane Austen’s novel? Yes! It would provide an insight into a world we don’t know much about, it would allow us to make comparisons with the past.
    However, I fear this is not the approach the rewriting is bound to have. I fear many elements would not be taken into account, the plot would degenerate, etc…
    I wish, if the reinvention/reworking has to take place, it would be more of a study on the TRUE intents of the writer OR, if it really has to be turned upside down, it should be done with style!

    • Thank you for replying. This is what blogging should be – a conversation rather a perfunctory Cool! or Awesome! We seem to broadly agree and, as an example of a good adaptation with sexual elements, I reposted a review of Lost in Austen from 2010: Book Review: Lost in Austen. I do however, take issue with the idea of an author’s “true intent.” I don’t think even the author knows what that is except on a conscious level, and if it were the only source of the work then the book would likely be flat and unreadable. It’s the subconscious wellsprings of imagination that make great literature because they allow the reader to tap into something shared by us all.

      For example, take The Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti. Was it her conscious intent to write a morality tale for children? If so, in the language of the internet, it’s an epic fail. It is in fact a masterpiece of repressed eroticism.

      In the case of “classic” literature, I think we’ve imposed that label to prevent curious readers from opening the box and rummaging round inside. I’m a rummager.

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