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?

What Emma Does When She Isn’t Ruining Harriet’s Chances for Marriage

In the drawing room after dinner

I attended a wonderful lecture sponsored by the JASNA NC Chapter. The lecture focused on Jane Austen’s works, with a particular emphasis on Emma and was titled “Jane Austen and the Labor of Leisure.”  The lecture held at the wonderful Fly Leaf Bookstore in Chapel Hill and was given by the delightful Peter Graham, Clifford Professor of English at Virginia Tech University and author of Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. This is an extremely expensive book, which is shame, because I would really like to buy it. But, I digress.

Emma reading Jane Fairfax's letter to the Bates

Jane’s novels take place in a world where no one seems to be doing anything important. They visit, they dance, they walk long distances, they have tea, they read Cowper and Fielding, they have dinner parties, they go up to London, over to Bath, and occasionally travel to Lime Regis, then, they visit some more. Her characters appear to have ample time on their hands and to some of Jane’s detractors, the novels seem frivolous. Yet, there has to be more to the charachters than what  is portrayed in the novels.

Jane Austen’s books seem to pin point those “necessary, still moments  for transcendence. As Peter Graham pointed out, this literary technique is necessary to bring the characters and the plots (girl meets boy, girl loses boy through misunderstanding, girl gets boy)  together. In the world that Emma, Elizabeth Bennett, the Dashwood Sisters and Fannie Price occupy, interaction with the opposite sex had to happen during those leisure moments. Yet, there is plenty of subtle evidence of the labor the characters must employ to keep their seemingly laconic lives functioning.

Fannie Price doing Mrs. Norris' bidding

Emma, for instance is the lady of a moderate sized manor. Her duties include the running of a not inconsequential household, care of an aging father, charitable visits to the poor as well as maintaining her societal duties as a good neighbor and companion. Emma rubs many people the wrong way, but a closer examination of her ‘offstage’ duties reveal her to be loving, caring, responsible young lady. Her regular, tender visits to the poor in her neighborhood are in and of themselves evidence of a noble character.

There are vast swaths of time that do not figure in the books, activities and important clues to the characters’ psyches which are spent offstage. As Dr Graham suggested, Austen’s novels dwell in the small slice of life that is the interlude of daily life called leisure.

Front piece to an early 20th century edition of Emma

Naturally, Austen’s characters appear to have more opportunity for leisure than the average, lower class citizen would have, but Austen seems to support the old adage “write what you know” and she was only fictionalizing what was familiar to her. Whether you agree with her or not, like her or consider her books to be fluff, she provides a valuable look at the leisure culture of her time.

*all illustrations come from my personal collection