Will the Real Elizabeth Bennett Please Stand Up?

Anyone can be Eiizabeth Bennett

I attended a lecture yesterday given by the Jane Austen Society of North America North Carolina Chapter. The speaker was Inger Sigrun Brodey, who teaches comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I am attaching her Curriculum Vitae because it is so impressive. It was a fun lecture focusing on Jane Austen’s impact on pop culture, primarily through film adaptations, both foreign and domestic as well as the recent rise in violent portrayals of the books as exhibited by the Zombie books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These zombie adaptations leave me cold, but are fun to leaf through at a book store since 80% of the book is Jane. Altered, but still mostly Jane such as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

There was one great point made during the lecture which I keep thinking about. No one KNOWS what any of Austen’s heroines look like. She never describes them, except for the occasional sparkle in the eye (we do know Elizabeth Bennet had dark eyes but dark what? brown? hazel? blue?) Each heroine is a  sort of blank canvas. ANYONE, ANYONE can be Elizabeth Bennett or Emma or the Dashwoods. Any type. Any girl can put herself in Elizabeth’s muslin dress and become Mrs. Darcy. We can each insert ourselves into the plot. Facebook has, as was pointed out to me yesterday, 29 ‘quizzes’ that attempt to pinpoint “which Jane Austen Heroine are you?” (I am always Fanny Price, by the way.)

One of the take away messages I received from the lecture was this ‘blank slate’ theory makes it possible for other cultures to identify with and adapt her novels as well. The Japanese, apparently, adore her as do the Indians. In India, Jane Austen was required reading for years. Now, Bollywood is turning out one Jane Austen knock off after another: Bride and Prejudice (Pride and Prejudice) Aisha (Emma) etc.

As part of her program, Inger Brodey showed pictorial collages of all the actresses who have played Elizabeth Bennet and no two are the same. She then showed a similar collage of the Darcy’s and they all look alike! I pointed out they all had a “Heathcliff’ look about them – brooding, tall dark handsome. It was an interesting cultural note – we assume what ‘that sort of man’ must look like – but there is no consensus on ‘that sort of” heroine. Fascinating. Will the real Elizabeth Bennett please stand up?